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  • Mushroom Cloud Over the Northern Capital:Writing the Tianqi Explosion in the Seventeenth Century*
  • Naixi Feng

On the morning of May 30, 1626, in Ming records the sixth day of the fifth month of the sixth year of the Tianqi era, an astonishing explosion resounded through Beijing. Within the next minute, a giant black mushroom cloud appeared in the sky above the capital city; thousands of houses near the Xuanwu Gate were burned to ash, thousands of people were killed or injured, and the whole city fell into a great panic. The explosion of the Imperial Gunpowder Workshop, or the Wanggongchang, was the most horrifying public catastrophe to take place in Beijing during the final decades of the Ming Dynasty.1 This extraordinary event occurred just when the political struggle between the eunuch faction headed by Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627) and the Donglin faction, mainly comprising scholar-officials from the Jiangnan region, had grown unprecedentedly fierce. Bloody confrontations taking place both at the capital and in Jiangnan reached a climax when many officials from the Donglin side were persecuted to death.2 The explosion, which happened to take place during this politically tense moment, attracted the attention of many contemporary scholars and, subsequently, frequently appeared in [End Page 71] miscellaneous writings produced during the seventeenth-century Ming-Qing dynastic transition.

The earliest record of the Tianqi explosion appears in an official gazette (dibao), a bulletin primarily written for the sake of distributing important news to bureaucratic agencies. Scholars also transcribed the report and preserved it in several textual miscellanies under the title "Official Report on a Heavenly Incident" (Tianbian dichao or "Official Report").3 Later, in their 1635 work recording the history and culture of Beijing titled A Sketch of Sites and Objects in the Imperial Capital (Dijing jingwulüe; hereafter A Sketch), two scholars—Liu Tong (1593–1636, jinshi 1634) and Yu Yizheng (1597–1636)—incorporated many of the strange details provided by the gazette and carefully situated the Tianqi explosion in the contemporary urban environment.4 After the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in the mid-seventeenth century, a generation of scholars began to seriously reflect on the socio-political origins of Ming dynastic failure through writing historical miscellanies.5 In A Compendium of Events in the North during the Last Years of the Ming (Mingji beilüe, 1670), Ji Liuqi (1622–?) presented the Tianqi explosion as a testimony to the Donglin activists' "righteous protestations" against eunuchs, which was from his perspective heroic and honorable. Meanwhile, in another miscellany, The Compendium of Appeasing [End Page 72] Bandits (Suikou jilüe, 1658), Wu Weiye (1609–71) further intensified the cosmological interpretation of this disaster as an omen from Heaven, foreshadowing the end of the Ming regime.

Following changing social contexts from the late Ming to the early Qing, writers who politically aligned themselves with the Donglin party strove to consolidate the relationship between court politics and the extraordinary explosion. In seemingly repetitive accounts of the same event, they strategically modified and adjusted the text within diverse literary conventions to express their own specific political agendas, among which one of the most important was the criminalization of Wei Zhongxian. This article examines these different types of discourses on the Tianqi explosion—the gazette, A Sketch, and historical miscellanies—to investigate the varying textual strategies used to politicize the disaster over the course of the seventeenth century. How did the reiterations and reframings of the Tianqi explosion contribute to these historical constructions? And to what extent can the local setting of this extraordinary event interfere with the narrative and thus influence people's rationalizations of historical figures' behaviors? The following sections will track the writers' manipulations of the text, especially their accounts of violence and death in the urban context of Beijing, and reflect on the roles that the explosion played in shaping the discourse of late Ming political history.

The Transcribed Gazette: The Power of Immediacy

Designed primarily to deliver messages across multiple strata of the bureaucratic system, dibao were bulletins intended to familiarize officials with essential information about political events and bureaucratic affairs.6 As seen in the Transcribed Gazette of the Wanli Reign (Wanli dichao), the largest gazette...