By Tonio Andrade
Before guided missiles, humans had few ways to attack their enemies remotely, so they tried using animals. The Chinese were enthusiastic practitioners of this art. The firebird was a simple, if imprecise example. This image is from a Chinese military manual from the 1000s, and its accompanying text includes instructions: “Take a peach pit and cut it in half. Hollow out the middle and fill it with mugwort tinder. Then cut two holes and put it back together. Before this, capture from within the enemy’s territory some wild pheasants. Tie the peach pits to their necks, and then prick their tails with a needle and set them free. They will flee back into the grass, at which point the peach pits will let loose their fire.”
Pheasants might have been suitable to attack a foe in the field, but what if the enemy held a city? In this case one could use urban birds, deploying hundreds of them at a time to lay waste to enemy buildings. This image, from the same eleventh-century military manual, depicts fire sparrows, and the accompanying text explains how to prepare them: “Hollow out apricot pits and fill them with mugwort tinder. Then capture from the enemy’s town and warehouses several hundred sparrows. Tie the apricot pits to their legs and then add a bit of fire [to the tinder]. At dusk, when the flocks fly into the city to rest for the night, they will settle in large groups in the houses and buildings, and at this moment the fire will flame up.”
If birds proved too subtle, one could also use fire-oxen, such as the one depicted here. In this case, the fire is used less as an incendiary than as a motivator. One fit one’s ox with spears and then affixed straw soaked in oil to his or her tail. After it’s set alight, the ox would charge madly toward the enemy.
Exploding Fire Ox
As the Chinese perfected gunpowder mixtures, they added bombs to these living weapons, as in this image, where we see a classical fire-ox, motivated to run by the burning reeds, with a bomb on its back. The bomb was timed to explode when the poor beast reached the enemy.
Firecat and Firebird
Europeans also used animals to deliver incendiaries. Here is an image of a cat and a bird, each with a sack of burning material attached to them. The idea was to kidnap a domestic cat from the enemy’s city, attach a sack of incendiary material to it, and then shoo it home. The idea was that it would then run and hide in a hay loft or barn, which would then, if things went as planned, catch on fire.
Tonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of The Gunpowder Age, as well as Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese.