Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History

Khalid Elhassan - May 26, 2021

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
The Great Tianqi or Wanggongchang Explosion devastated Ming Dynasty Beijing. YouTube

18. Keeping a Major Gunpowder Factory in the Middle of a Capital City Turned Out to be a Bad Idea

Producing adequate stocks of gunpowder was vital to the security of Ming Dynasty China in the seventeenth century. So investing in major gunpowder works was a good idea on the part of the Ming government. However, building a major gunpowder works in a major city – especially in the Ming capital city – turned out to be a bad idea. That became clear on May 30, 1626, in the aftermath of what became known as the Great Tianqi Explosion, after the Ming Dynasty Tianqi Emperor during whose reign it occurred.

Also known as the Beijing Explosive Incident in Late Ming, the Wanggongchang Calamity, or the Wanggongchang Explosion, it was one of history’s worst industrial accidents. It occurred at the Wanggongchang Armory, about two miles from Beijing’s Forbidden Palace in Beijing – home of the Ming emperors and the seat of their government. The blast was so loud that it was heard beyond the Great Wall, about 100 miles away, and produced a “mushroom shaped” cloud that hung over southwest Beijing. When the dust settled, half of the city was wrecked, and around 20,000 people were dead.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Ming Dynasty artillery. Pintrest

17. The Ming Administration Did Little to Protect its Capital from Gunpowder Factories Inside the City

The Wanggongchang Armory was one of half a dozen factories in the Beijing area that produced weapons and ammunition for the armies of Ming Dynasty China. The armories, which were operated and overseen by the Ministry of Public Works, were vital to Beijing’s security, and to the defense and military readiness of China. Around 70 to 80 people worked in Wanggonchang, where they manufactured arrows, swords, spears, cannons, and gunpowder. The latter were especially important, because the importance of gunpowder and cannons had grown in recent years.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Ming Dynasty firearms. Pintrest

Ming armies at the time were locked into a steadily escalating arms race with the Manchus of today’s Manchuria. Cannons and an ample supply of gunpowder were key to keeping the Manchus out of China. The factories were built in Beijing, protected by the capitals’ thick and powerful walls, to keep them from falling into enemy hands. While much thought went into using the city to protect the gunpowder factories, little thought seems to have gone into protecting the city from the gunpowder factories if something went wrong. Beijing paid a heavy price for the failure to take such precautions.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
The Tianqi Emperor. Pintrest

16. A Catastrophe That Killed a Crown Prince, and Nearly Killed an Emperor

The Great Tianqi Explosion was preceded by a plume of smoke, which witnesses saw rising above Beijing’s Wanggongchang Armory around 10 AM on the morning of May 30th, 1626. It was followed a short while later by an immense explosion. People over a mile away heard a loud roaring rumble headed their way, followed by a giant dust cloud and tremors that shook houses. Then came a flash of light, followed by an enormous bang that, in the words of a contemporary witness: “shattered the sky and crumbled the earth“. The destruction was shocking.

The blast was so powerful that it sent a three-ton stone lion went sailing over the city walls. Huge trees were uprooted, flew into the air, and landed on the other side of Beijing. All that was left of the armory was a 21-foot-deep crater, and everything within one and a half square miles was destroyed. The streets were reduced to jumbles of debris and rubble, littered with bodies and body parts. The Tianqi Emperor barely escaped with his life, while the only guard who stayed by his side amidst the panic was killed by a falling tile. The seven-month-old Crown Prince Zhu Cijong, the emperor’s only living heir, died from the blast’s shock.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
The suicide of Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor, who hanged himself in 1644. Alamy

15. The Consequences of the Tianqi Explosion Went far Beyond the Immediate Loss of Life and Property

The Great Tianqi Explosion’s consequences went far beyond the immediate devastation and loss of life. Terrible as those were, they were only the tip of an iceberg of calamities that befell China and its ruling Ming Dynasty. The Wanggongchang Armory that had just gone up was one of China’s biggest weapons factories, and it held the country’s biggest arms and ammunition stockpile. The Ming military, already under increasing pressure from the Manchus, never recovered from the loss of weapons and munitions, or the loss of the manufacturing capacity to make more.

The catastrophe came at a time when Ming China was also struggling with domestic crises caused by widespread corruption, internal conflicts, and a series of natural disasters that triggered peasant rebellions. The dramatic Tianqi Explosion eclipsed those. In a superstitious era, it was seen as a sign of Heaven’s displeasure with the ruling Mings, and divine punishment for the emperor’s incompetence. All those factors came together to speed up the Ming decline and cause the dynasty’s collapse just eighteen years later, when it was defeated and replaced by the Manchu, or Qing Dynasty. That chain of events began with the bad idea to build a dangerous factory in the heart of a capital city.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Dr. Robert Liston. Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh

14. That Time a Doctor Discovered That Competitive Speed Surgery is a Bad Idea

Medical mishaps and mediocre doctors are, unfortunately, all too common. Indeed, thanks to negligent and incompetent doctors, there is a thriving field in the legal profession that focuses solely on medical malpractice. Fortunately for Dr. Robert Liston (1794 – 1847) of London, he practiced in an era when, and in a country where, medical malpractice litigation was not the booming business it is today in the US. If not, lawyers would have had a field day suing him for an instance in which he killed three people during a single surgery. The kicker? Two of the people he got killed were not even his patients.

Dr. Liston was a surgeon known for his speed. In the days before anesthetics, an ability to operate speedily was a decided plus. It meant that patients spent less time enduring excruciating pain as a surgeon cut into them. It also increased the odds of survival, lessened the odds of patients going into shock, and reduced the time in which their vitals were exposed to germs and other vectors of infection. The problem arose when Liston took that otherwise good idea, and ruined it by going for speed surgery records at the expense of safety and the well-being of his patients.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Nineteenth century surgery was a public spectacle. All That is Interesting

13. Dr. Liston Set Surgery Speed Records, but Also Set the Record for the Most People Killed in a Single Surgery

Dr. Robert Liston was famous for being able to perform surgeries in a matter of seconds, and to amputate a leg in just two and a half minutes. In what turned out to be a bad idea, he played up his reputation for speedy surgery for all it was worth. Surgeries back then were spectator events, with galleries surrounding operating rooms for observers to watch what was going on. As he brandished his cutting tools, Dr. Liston often shouted to the audience “time me, gentlemen!” It became his catchphrase. Unsurprisingly, operating at such speeds meant that the odds of mishaps were high.

During one leg amputation surgery, Dr. Liston accidentally severed the fingers off the hand of an assistant who was holding down the patient’s leg. Liston continued with the job, and took off the patient’s leg. Both patient and assistant got gangrene, and died within a few days. In his frenzied slicing, Dr. Liston also accidentally cut an elderly spectator’s coat. The old man was not hurt, but he was splattered with blood from patient’s amputated leg and the medical assistant’s severed fingers. The elderly spectator thought that he had been wounded, panicked, and suffered a fatal heart attack.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Location of the Banqiao dam. Wikimedia

12. Yet Another Bad Maoist Idea: Poorly Planned Dams

The toxic fruits of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward continued to inflict misery upon the Chinese for many years, long after it was wrapped up. While the program was still a going concern, the Maoist government had what was on its face a good idea: build a series of dams, with the goal of retaining water, and providing hydroelectricity. They were built with the help of Soviet experts, but in what turned out to be a bad idea, costs and time were cut by cutting corners on safety – especially flood control safety.

A chief engineer blew the whistle on the danger, but he was ignored, accused of lacking communist zeal, and banished to the back of beyond. One of those dams was constructed at Banqiao, on the Ru River in Henan. It stood 387-feet-high, and had a storage capacity of 17.4 billion cubic feet. The dam was rated to withstand “a thousand-year flood”, that is it was deemed safe against any flood other than one so severe that odds were that it would happen only once in a millennium. As seen below, it took considerably less than a millennium for such a flood to arrive.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
The Banqiao dam’s breach produced a disaster. Ohio State University

11. Poor Communications Transformed What Might Have Been a Minor Disaster Into a Major Catastrophe

A dam strong enough to withstand anything but a fluke thousand-year flood was sound in theory. As it turned out, however, Chinese planners had either miscalculated what a thousand-year flood was, or Mao Zedong’s China was simply unlucky. Either way, in early August, 1975, Typhoon Nina struck, stalled over the Banqiao Dam area, and produced flooding double the anticipated thousand-year-level maximum. Even then, what came to be known as The Banqiao Dam Disaster could have been averted if not for incompetence and poor communications.

On August 6, 1975, with water levels rising in its reservoir because of Typhoon Nina, Banqiao’s officials requested authority to open the dam to relieve the pressure. They were turned down because of ongoing flooding downstream. In hindsight, that was not a good idea. The request was finally approved the following day, the 7th, but the telegram failed to reach Banqiao. In the early hours of August 8th, the water crested a foot above the dam’s wave protection wall, and it collapsed. The consequences were catastrophic.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
The area devastated by the Banqiao Dam Disaster. Wikimedia

10. This Dam Disaster Capped Off Another Bad Idea

The Banqiao Dam was one of 62 dams that collapsed because of Typhoon Nina. When it gave way, it released almost 16 billion cubic meters of water. They produced a wave 6.2 miles wide and 10 to 23 feet high, that rushed downstream at 31 miles an hour. It left a swath of devastation 9.3-miles-wide and 34-miles-long. The Banqiao Disaster was history’s worst structural failure. It unleashed the third deadliest flood ever, devastated 30 cities and counties, inundated 3 million acres, and destroyed almost 7 million houses. Over 10 million people were impacted, and the death toll might have been as high as 240,000.

The disaster occurred at the tail end of Mao’s regime and his Cultural Revolution – another bad idea that produced years of turmoil, because Mao wanted to retain power by getting rival communist factions to fight each other, and leave him as arbitrator. The Chinese authorities did their best to hide the extent of the catastrophe. Solid information – or as solid as governmental information ever gets in China – did not emerge until the 1990s. The extent of the disaster finally came to light when a former Minister of Water Resources wrote a preface for a book, in which details were revealed for the first time.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
A medieval manuscript depicting Abelard and Heloise. Amazon

9. The Middle Ages’ Most Tragic Star Crossed Lovers

The world’s most famous star crossed lovers are probably Romeo and Juliet. However, they are not real people, but fictional characters, conceived in the imagination of William Shakespeare and brought to life by his quill. For real life star crossed lovers, perhaps none are more famous than Heloise and Abelard, two medieval scholars whose romance ended in pain and sorrow. A whole lot of sorrow, and especially whole a lot of pain, for the male half of the affair, Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142).

Abelard was born into minor French nobility in Brittany, and he exhibited a love of learning at a young age that marked him for a life of scholarship. His father encouraged him to study the liberal arts, and by his early twenties, Abelard was famous for his debating skills, particularly in philosophy. Like some super smart people, however, he also gained a reputation for arrogance. By 1115 Abelard was an accomplished theologian, the master of Notre Dame, and a canon in the archdiocese that included Paris. That was when he ran into Heloise d’Argenteuil (circa 1095 – 1164), and had what turned out to be the bad idea of seducing her.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
‘Abelard and His Pupil Heloise’, by Edmund Leighton, 1882. Wikimedia

8. A Scholar’s Seemingly Bright Idea to Worm His Way Into His Lover’s House Under Her Guardian’s Nose

Heloise lived in the precincts of Notre Dame under the care of her uncle and guardian, a secular canon named Fulbert. A rarity in an age when few women were afforded an education, she mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and gained renown for her knowledge of classical studies. To get close to her, Abelard cast about for a way to worm his way into Fulbert’s household. He approached Heloise’s uncle, claimed that he could not afford a place of his own, and offered to tutor his niece instead of pay rent. Fulbert agreed, tutor and pupil soon hit it off, and in 1115, Heloise and Abelard began an affair.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Jean Vignaud’s ‘Abelard and Heloise Surprised by Master Fulbert’, 1819. Flickr

It was torrid, and given their circumstance, the duo were too blinded by their passion to pay sufficient heed to the risks involved. Heloise lived in convent, but snuck out, or he snuck in, whenever possible. They got physical and got it on whenever and wherever they could, and made love in gardens at night, in her convent cell, in the convent’s kitchens, and in her uncle and guardian’s bedroom. She eventually got pregnant, so Abelard arranged for her to visit his family in Brittany, where she gave birth to a son.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
The tomb of Heloise and Abelard. Imgur

7. Too Late, Abelard Discovered That Boasting of His Conquest Was a Bad Idea

Unfortunately for Abelard and Heloise – but especially unfortunate for him – his arrogance betrayed him: he boasted of his conquest. Word got back to Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle and guardian, and things took a turn for the worst. To appease her uncle, the duo got secretly married. However, when Fulbert disclosed the marriage, Heloise denied it in an attempt to protect her husband’s career. To protect her from her uncle, Abelard sent her to a convent, where she pretended to be a nun. Fulbert saw that as an attempt by Abelard to bury the scandal by forcing Heloise to become a nun.

Heloise’s enraged guardian set out to make Abelard pay for defiling his niece. So he hired some thugs to break into Abelard’s room one night, where they beat him up, then castrated him. After recovering from his injuries, Abelard became a monk and retired to a monastery. He cajoled Heloise, who was reluctant to become a Bride of Christ, into becoming a nun for real. Eventually, Abelard got over the trauma and resumed lecturing and writing. Heloise became prioress of her convent, and the duo spent the rest of their lives writing each other letters.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
An aging Mao Zedong in 1976. Everyday Life in Mao’s China

6. The Suffering Inflicted by Mao Was Just a Part of China’s Suffering in the Twentieth Century

The preceding entries on Mao’s screw-ups, with one bad idea from the Chairman following another, barely capture just how tragic the twentieth century was for China. Mao did a number on the Chinese in the second half of that century, but things had been bad in the first half as well. First, there was a foreign invasion to crush the Boxer Rebellion. Then came a revolution that overthrew imperial rule, only to replace it with decades of warlord anarchy. Then came a civil war between nationalists and communists. All of that took place against a backdrop of natural disasters that killed millions.

Things were made worse by a Japanese invasion that killed millions more Chinese before World War II had even begun. China ended up on WWII’s winning side, but things did not improve when the conflict ended. The civil war resumed and went into high gear, and ended in a communist victory. Once the communists took over, Mao adopted idiotic policies – from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution – that killed tens of millions of Chinese. Then in July, 1976, as an aging Mao’s hold on power began to loosen – he died a few months later – China was rocked by the twentieth century’s deadliest earthquake.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Marchers during the Cultural Revolution. Los Angeles Times

5. Mao’s Brainstorms Did Not Cause All of China’s Twentieth Century Suffering, But They Were Responsible for a Big Chunk of It

By the 1970s, Maoism had dealt China setback after setback. As seen above, Mao thought that revolutionary zeal could substitute for proper planning, and even rational thinking. The result was a series of debacles such as the poorly named Great Leap Forward, which actually ended up setting China back, and killed tens of millions. Then came Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which again assumed that revolutionary zeal and people power – in this case the power of young fanatical people – could propel China into modernity and prosperity.

It was another bad Maoist idea, and like the rest of the Chairman’s bad ideas, it inflicted even more chaos and suffering upon the Chinese. By 1976, Mao, who by then accurately reflected his regime and brand of communism, was a debilitated and dying old man. However, he and his hardcore followers still believed that Maoist revolutionary zeal – Mao Zedong Thought – could work miracles. Maoist revolutionary zeal extended to a Chinese system of earthquake prediction that was touted as infallible. As seen below, it was not.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Students reciting from Mao’s Little Red Book during the Cultural Revolution. History

4. “Socialist Science” Turned Out to be Another Bad Maoist Idea

The belief in “socialist science” was another bad idea among many that took a hold in China during the Cultural Revolution. It was basically wishful thinking – or magical thinking if you would – wrapped up in socialist big words and slogans. The belief in socialist science extended to a belief in a Chinese scientific system for earthquake prediction, whose accuracy was questionable at best. In 1975, the system actually did provide a timely warning of an upcoming earthquake. That allowed for preventative measures that led to a remarkably low death toll. As subsequent events proved, however, it was just a fluke.

The country’s earthquake prediction system was held up as an example of the superiority of Chinese communism under Mao. Questioning that was to question Mao, and questioning Mao was-ill advised. Like other things touted by Mao’s regime as indicators of its superiority, belief in the earthquake prediction system had nothing to do with science and facts. Not that facts mattered much to Mao and his followers, who routinely dismissed contrary evidence as fake news. Instead, belief in China’s earthquake prediction system became a litmus test to separate “true party liners” from “right wing deviationists”.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Tangshan. iNews

3. When Reality and “Socialist Science” Collided

In 1976, socialist science and China’s earthquake prediction system ran into reality in Tangshan, a coal mining and industrial city about 70 miles east of Beijing. In late July that year, people in and around the city noticed that there was some weird stuff going on. Chicken refused to eat. Rats were spotted running in panicked packs in daylight. The water level in wells rose and fell. On the evening of July 27th, and through the early morning hours of the 28th, fireballs and flashes of colored lights were seen.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Aftermath of the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake. China Daily News

Such phenomena were strange, but people still had work to do and lives to live. So in the early morning hours of July 28, 1976, most of Tangshan’s residents were sound asleep, resting from the previous day’s toil, and recharging for the toil of the day to come. Then at 3:42 AM, disaster struck in the form of a massive earthquake, that registered between 7.8 to 8.2 on the Richter Scale. It lasted for less than half a minute – 23 seconds, to be exact. As seen below, that was plenty of time to inflict a catastrophe.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Aftermath of the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake. China Daily News

2. The Extent of Damage in Tangshan Was Horrific

During the 23-second-duration of the Tangshan Earthquake, nine out of ten buildings in the city were destroyed. Because almost everybody was asleep in their beds – in homes that were decidedly not earthquake-resistant – the death toll was horrific. Stunned survivors crawled out of their homes, many of them naked, covered only in blood and dust. The seismic upheaval started fires, set off explosives in the city’s factories, spilled toxic chemicals, and released poisonous gasses. Water and electricity were cut off, while road and rail links were severed.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Soldiers mobilized for Tangshan rescue efforts. China Underground

Between the initial earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, an estimated 655,000 people were killed, and another 700,000 were seriously injured. The Chinese government was not prepared for such a tragic event. 100,000 soldiers, 30,000 medical personnel, and another 30,000 construction workers were mobilized, and ordered to Tangshan to assist with rescue and recovery. However, just getting them there proved to be a challenge. With road and rail links to the region severely damaged or destroyed, rescuers had to walk to get there. Some of them covered almost 200 miles on foot.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Chinese propaganda falsely depicting speedy rescue efforts after the Tangshan earthquake. Disaster History

1. Aptly, Mao Capped His Rule With Another Bad Idea: Decline Foreign Assistance With Rescue Efforts

When rescuers finally reached Tangshan, many of them lacked the training for pulling survivors out of the rubble. The work of the few who knew what they were doing was hampered by the absence of effective oversight to coordinate their efforts. To make matters worse, Mao’s government had another bad idea: rely exclusively on Chinese rescuers. It was couched in terms of self-reliance, but in reality, the government was too embarrassed to let outsiders witness the incompetence of its response, so it refused all offers of foreign assistance. As a result, during the crucial first few days after the disaster, many died from lack of adequate care.

Sparrow Extermination, Lantern Shields, and More Terrible Plans in History
Mao in 1976, shortly before his death. Rare Historical Photos

The vaunted Chinese earthquake prediction system, the epitome of “socialist science” touted by Mao and his acolytes, had not predicted the Tangshan disaster. The complete lack of warning, combined with a horrific death toll in the hundreds of thousands, was hard to ignore. It was a stark failure that demonstrated to all – even if none dared say so – that the claims of the superiority of Maoist methods and socialist science were ludicrous. It was against that backdrop of yet another demonstrable failure that an aged and ailing Mao went into his final decline, and died a month and a half later, on September 9, 1976.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Atlantic, The, October 24th, 2012 – ‘Time Me Gentlemen’: The Fastest Surgeon of the 19th Century

Burge, James – Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography (2003)

Cracked – How a Surgeon Once Killed Three People in One Operation

Discover Magazine, February 26th, 2014 – Paved With Good Intentions: Mao Tse Tung’s ‘Four Pests’ Disaster

Encyclopedia Britannica – Great Leap Forward

Encyclopedia Britannica – Tangshan Earthquake of 1976

Extreme Tech – Tech Wrecks: Lessons From Some of the Biggest Hardware Screwups

History Collection – 12 Historically Important Perverts

Journal of European Neurology, 2018, 79:106-107 – Edgar Adrian (1889 – 1977) and Shell Shock Electrotherapy: A Forgotten History?

New York Times, February 13th, 2005 – Heloise & Abelard: Love Hurts

Shapiro, Judith – Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (2001)

Spartacus Education – Medical Treatment of Shellshock

Timeline – The Deadliest Structural Failure in History Might Have Killed 170,000, and China Tried to Cover it Up

Wikipedia – 1975 Banqiao Dam Failure

Wikipedia – 1976 Tangshan Earthquake

Wikipedia – Lantern Shield