The Curse of Huo Yao


Ancient Chinese Firelance

The Emperor Dezong of Tang had Zhu Ci and his assistants dragged before his throne. First though, he had ordered them beaten and all but a small sample of huo yao and one fire lance utterly destroyed. The samples were placed on the dais at the great Emperor’s feet.

Zhu Ci would have stood and bowed if he had the strength, but he had never been a well man and the beatings of the Emperor’s elite guards had left him without the slightest vigor. At least they had the decency to wash the blood from his body and bind his wounds before bringing him and his comrades into the throne room.

“Great…great Emperor, Zhu Ci gasped. “What have we done to offend you so?”

“Offend me? Offend me? You created this abomination and you think I am merely offended? It is only because of my tremendous desire for mercy and justice that you are still alive, monstrous cur.”

“But my liege. What have we done to inspire such punishment?”

“Raise your eyes to me when you speak, Zhu Ci!”

“Yes. A thousand pardons. I’m just so weak…”

Zhu Ci looked at the Emperor Dezong and saw in his right hand, he was holding a fire lance and in his left, a bowl half filled with huo yao, the black powder of his own invention.

“But, my Emperor, we only thought…”

“You thought to make my name a curse on the lips of all the Kingdoms of Asia and into the West? You thought to make our people a stench in the nostrils of all civilized human beings?”

“I…I invented the huo yao to heal skin infections but then discovered that it could be used as a weapon. Think of the might of your armies, oh Emperor. I only wanted to increase your greatness.”

“Ambitious fool. Stick to your science and medicines and leave warfare to warriors. There are ways that decent men make war and your accursed powder is not one of them. The Emperors and Kings of the world must meet as equals when we dispute. If our armies are great it is because our people are great, not because we use criminal weapons on the field of battle. If I die by lance or arrow, it is because my foe is superior in the use of our common tools of war. Not because…because of this.”

In a rage, the Emperor Dezong stood and flung the bowl and its contents at Zhu Ci, striking the floor near the fool’s head. The bowl shattered and powder flew like dust on the breeze. He then threw the fire lance down at his feet, breaking it into sticks.

“Guards! Have this mess cleaned up. These other men shall spend five years in my prison for aiding this creature. As for you Zhu Ci, I will have you beheaded at dawn. I have had all of your records confiscated and destroyed and the few who have any knowledge of your invention will die if they breathe a word of it to anyone.

“But Emperor, I swear…”

“Take these dogs away at once. Carry out my commands. Upon my life and the sanctity of the borders of China, no weapon will ever exist that uses your hated black powder!”

I just read a story called Unity at the “Observations of the Urban Spaceman” blogspot. He had written it in response to the A World Without Guns flash fiction challenge. The idea is to write a tale of up to 1500 words about a world either where all firearms have been banned or never invented. My story is a mere 547 words not including this afterword.

I was curious what would have to occur to prevent the invention of all firearms so I briefly looked at the history. How Stuff Works and Wikipedia had enough information to get me started and indeed, what we now call gunpowder was originally invented to treat skin infections.

The weapon that was the basis for all firearms was the Fire Lance and without this weapon’s existence, and if all knowledge of gunpowder had been suppressed, especially before it reached Europe via the Silk Road, perhaps there would be no firearms today.

That’s probably not true for two reasons. The first is that in real life, no governing leader, especially in Ninth Century China, would turn down the chance to gain a military advantage over their enemies. The second is that even if the knowledge of gunpowder were initially suppressed, someone down the line would have invented it anyway. It’s like saying what if the atomic bomb hadn’t been invented in the 1940s? Then someone would have invented it later.

My use of the Emperor Dezong of Tang is probably anachronistic. I just grabbed the first likely Chinese Emperor who lived around the right time in history.

Still, it was interesting to play fast and loose with this important invention (whether you agree with its existence or not, it is indeed historically critical).

4 thoughts on “The Curse of Huo Yao

  1. Well done for tackling the problem of firearms at their inception. I do agree that it would have been invented eventually, but you never know where that path might have led. Interesting that gunpowder was invented to treat skin infections; I didn’t know that. And it’s a shame that not all world leaders were (or are) as your take on Emperor Dezong; IMO, there’s nothing glorious about fighting and dying, but war would be more honourable if the battlefields were even. Hmm… this gives me an idea for a story which I may or may not write. At any rate, good take on the prompt, and really well done for a third of the allotted word allowance!


    • Actually, this is what made the American Revolution interesting. The British fought military battles in lines the way they’d been fought in Europe for centuries and if the American rebels had done the same, perhaps we’d still be part of the British Empire today (well, probably not). But the rebels fought a guerilla war and the British didn’t know how to handle it. Frankly, there have been wars throughout recorded human history, and I don’t see them going away any time soon. War also isn’t the exclusive property of western civilization and probably at any given time, there are several happening in various continents around the planet.

      As I said, my take on an ancient Chinese Emperor is probably highly improbable because in fact fire lances were the first “firearm” used in war and once gunpowder made it to Europe, that’s all she wrote.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ahh… The Luddite theme song! If only some technology had been suppressed, life would be better! Nonsense! Not only are you correct that someone would likely have invented it later, the technology is not the problem. It is the desires and the fears of humans that drive its uses. The technology of sword and lance was not equal on two opposing sides. The numbers of warriors was then a measure of capability. However, even that was augmented by martial arts fighting techniques, and the invention of bow and arrows. Guns and cannon are no less equalizing, nor are rockets and missiles. The fundamental question is what values constrain a human in the use of power that is available to him (or her). Powerlessness doesn’t long constrain human frustration. It finds an outlet, somehow. Weapons of any kind are merely an extension of human power, to be turned against whatever is perceived to induce fear or frustrate desire. The only solution to the problem of power misused is to address the human condition.


    • I was trying to be creative and I think I admitted in my afterword that the situation was totally impractical. Trying to write a creative and realistic story about a world without guns isn’t easy because quite frankly, it’ll never happen this side of Messiah. The person who made up the challenge no doubt was reacting to the latest school shooting in Florida. As you know, I often process my own angst through writing so I can at least understand why someone else would as well.


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