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20 000 people dead with no explanation
On May 6th 1626, the city of Beijing was disturbed by a low roaring from the sky. Some curious inhabitants wandered out of their homes to see what it could be. The sky was clear but for a small trail of smoke which coiled up from Wangongchang, their gunpowder storage facility. Then, the ground started to shake and the world exploded.
The explosion flattened houses, rip the earth up like tissue paper, sent a three-tonne stone lion over 1km away, and would kill an estimated 20 000 people within a few short moments. The impact was as powerful as the bomb that would land in Hiroshima over 300 years later, and to this day, there is no real explanation for the event.
Was it gunpowder?
The most obvious explanation would be a gunpowder explosion. Wangonchang was, after all, at the heart of the tragedy, and it was one of the largest gunpowder storage facilities in Beijing. But it doesn't add up entirely, as gunpowder is in itself not an explosive substance.
Gunpowder was created in the early Tang dynasty in the year. Although it had been part of the Chinese Empire for years, it had only seen service in weaponry around the year the 1100s, over a thousand years after its discovery. Its main use was in fireworks.
But although gunpowder is used as an explosive, it can't explode when ignited in an open area. It needs to be put in a container. This is exactly how fireworks work. Essentially, fireworks explode when the gunpowder inside the container ignites and builds up gas and pressure which eventually grows so high, that it explodes.
A facility that catches fire would, at the most, burn down quickly as gunpowder is extremely high in oxygen which gives it its fast-burning properties.
Furthermore, the accounts after the explosion are quite puzzling.
Accounts of the explosion
A 2.25-kilometre radius was affected after the blast. Houses were entirely flattened, those closest to the explosion turned to ash, as had the bodies. The bodies that were found had no clothes on them, some were ripped apart, and yet, there were no burn marks. Even those that had been found alive were bereft of clothing.
And they would find a lot of clothing in the trees nearby.
For around two hours after the explosion, houses and bodies would fall from the sky in increments. The houses that weren't raining down had collapsed, with "bricks at the bottom and roofs at the top", and all the fireplaces were unlit, despite most inhabitants preferring to keep them burning for most of the day. The description of the explosion is also rather peculiar.
The survivors said that: "It felt like the sky was falling as if the ground gave way, and then day suddenly became night." The aftershock could be felt 200km away, and for months afterwards, neighbouring cities would feel light tremors from time to time, suggesting possible aftershocks.
The gunpowder explosion is difficult to support when there were no burn marks or scarring at the scene.
Another theory supports the idea that it could have been a meteorite. Although a meteorite was not seen, they move extremely fast and a small one could have been missed at 9 am that morning. The meteorite might have struck the gunpowder facility, which caused the intense explosion and aftershocks months later.
The only problem with this is that there was no crater at the scene.
But whatever happened, at the centre of this catastrophic event stands the factory of Wanggonchang - and in the facility itself, there may be an explanation for what really happened.
Wanggongchang and gunpowder
Wanggonchang was a large storage facility nestled in the heart of Beijing. Firearms, armour, bows, and of course, gunpowder was housed in huge stockpiles in their underground storage facilities. They built towers of black caskets, ready to be sent out to the front line. The Ming Dynasty was an ambitious time for the Emperors, who sought to expand their land out into Mongolian and Japanese territories, but these wars took a hefty toll on the people and their land.
But wars create jobs, and the people became skilled in the art of making gunpowder. But it's how they stored the gunpowder that could give an answer to what happened. They stored it in underground stone caves. Which may have been airtight.
If we then consider a fire in a gunpowder facility that is airtight, the explosion suddenly makes more sense. It is quite possible that one of the storage sections were set alight, as the gasses build in the rapidly burning gunpowder, it built an intense pressure very quickly, and the only out was up.
But still, the lack of burn victims pose a problem with the gunpowder theory.
Despite the high casualty rate, very little is really known about the tragedy. Reports are quite scarce, and even to those who have made a study of the event, can't really explain what happened. Was it an accident? A terror from the sky? Or something far more sinister?
With over three hundreds years having passed, we can really only leave it up to speculation.
Emperor Taizu’s empire
FALL OF THE MING DYNASTY
Ming rule was partly undone by enormous fiscal problems that resulted in a calamitous collapse. Several factors contributed to the financial trouble. The Imperial clan became overstuffed and paying all the clan’s members became a severe burden.
Military campaigns had also become a significant drain on the empire’s purse, with efforts in Korea and Japan doing the worst damage, as well as the constant costs of defending against insurgents, particularly the Mongols.
An agricultural disaster, the result of the lowest temperatures of the Little Ice Age, also helped deplete funds. A drop in average temperatures resulted in earlier freezes, shortened growing seasons and produced pitiful harvests.
These circumstances lead to famine, which forced starving soldiers to desert their posts and form marauding gangs ravaging the countrysides.
By 1632, the gangs were moving east, and the Imperial military proved incapable of stopping them. Soon after, the country was further decimated by flooding, locusts, drought and disease. Rebellion and riots became commonplace.
In 1642, a group of rebels destroyed the dikes of the Yellow River and unleashed flooding that killed hundreds of thousands of people. As the social order broke down and smallpox spread, two competing rebel leaders, Li Zicheng and Zhang, took control of separate parts of the country and both declared new dynasties.
The last Ming emperor, Chóngzhēn, committed suicide in 1644. Later that year, the semi-nomadic Manchu people prevailed over the chaos and became the ruling Qing Dynasty.
The doll apparently bore a striking resemblance to its owner.
But tragedy struck, and the young girl was killed by a terrible bout of yellow fever. The parents, completely devastated by the loss made a small shrine in her memory, placing the doll in its centre. They named it Okiku.
One day the mother was praying at the altar when she noticed something peculiar. The doll's hair was longer than it had been before! She quickly called her husband and he came to the same conclusion, Okiku's hair was growing. They realised that their daughter's spirit must have possessed the doll.
Although certainly peculiar, they decided to keep the doll and so keep their daughter close to them. A few years later the family decided to move to Japan proper, but they did not wish to take the doll with them, believing that their daughter would be happier to stay in a place she knew.
They took her to the monks of the Mannenji temple, where the small doll has resided ever since.
But the story doesn't end there. The monks claim that some time ago, one of their members had a dream about Okiku who asked him to please cut her hair, as she didn't like it to grow too long. Since then they have trimmed the beautiful black hair, but it still grows to this day.
Much like many of the folklore and superstition littered across the many islands of Japan, the story of Okiku is a mixture of horror and tragedy. Almost sweet in a way. It is difficult to find pure horror in her dull eyes when one remembers that she is really just a little girl whose life was cut a little too short.
And her hair that grew a little too long.
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