6th August 2005
A direct descendant of mechanical catapults of previous generations, the cannon slowly replaced and eventually ousted the great siege engines of old from Chinese arsenals. The word Pao for catapult was written with the "stone" radical on the left of the word. This same word was adopted for the name of these new gunpowder weapons but with the "stone" radical replaced by the "fire" radical. This meant that the same word Pao was used to mean catapult as well as cannon, differentiated only by the type of radical used. A further differentiation arose during the transitional stages of the Song to Ming dynasties by the addition of the word Huo or "fire" next to the word Pao to form Huo Pao or "Fire Cannon". This word is not to be confused with those of old incendiary throwing catapults of the Tang and Song dynasties. The terminology during this transitional period was unfortunately not consistently applied and many examples of confusingly mixed terminology exists.
In A.D. 1221, the Jurchens had used a pumpkin-shaped iron bombard, which was more a short ranged flame-thrower than a real cannon.
During the civil wars and rebellions at the end of the Yuan dynasty, trebuchets and cannons were used together but the relatively small caliber of cannons used made them less effective against city walls. In the Ming dynasty, large iron cannons began to be produced, while wooden and bamboo cannons would also be improvised. The use of cannons had broadened from use in siege warfare and city defenses to also include use in naval warfare and field deployment. Wheeled carriages for cannons also began to be used for the first time then.
Zhong Shaoyi at the Beijing-based PLA Military Science Institute discovered and authenticated a Yuan Dynasty bronze cannon, weighing 6.21kg, 34.7cm long, with an inscription dated A.D. 1298. Another early cannon was a bronze cannon from the Yuan dynasty, with an inscription dated A.D. 1332 that was 35.3cm long, with a caliber of 10.5cm and a weight of 6.94kg. It had a flared muzzle which was characteristic of late Yuan to early Ming cannons, and carried an inscription labeling it as cannon number 300 of a frontier guard unit, showing that such cannons were already deployed in large numbers then.
However, a documented first use of tubed gunpowder weaponry in a city siege was in the use of Huo Dong or "fire tubes" in the siege of Shaoxing in A.D. 1358 - 1359 when the beleaguered defenders, having been reduced to mere remnant forces, were attacked from three different approaches by Ming troops led by General Hu Ta Hai but operating under General Wu Kuo Kung. Recorded in the Bao Yueh Lu (Defence of the City of Shaoxing) by Xu Mienqi, these fire tubes were most definitely metal barrel handguns and bombards.
During the Ming dynasty, an interesting form of wooden "missile" with iron tips and stabilising fins, with some varieties as long as 9 metres and fired by gunpowder cannon, emerged in 14th century A.D. Called the Shen Jijian or the Chongtong in Korea, these transitional cannons firing large wooden arrows reminiscent of modern day missiles were crucial developments in an interesting evolutionary path towards the true cannon of today.
By the mid-Ming period, alongside the indigenously developed cannons, there were cannons imported from Europe known as Folangji or "Frankish Machines" and Hongyi Pao or "Red-haired Barbarian Cannons". Most of these were from Portugal and Holland and had superior range, caliber and durability compared to locally cast Chinese cannons. The Chinese quickly began making their own based on the European designs but the name stuck and they continued to be called Folangji and Hongyi Pao. These types of cannon formed the backbone of the artillery of Chinese armies until well into the Qing dynasty.