Chinese Matches History: How the Chinese Began Making Fire
For thousands of years, the ancient Chinese started fires like other ancient cultures – they used small pieces of wood or twisted rope as kindling; struck flint against rocks containing iron pyrite or steel; or used coals kept burning in shells, bone or horn.
The ancient Chinese did have one advantage in that they discovered how to make steel as early as the second century BCE from cast iron. It is easier and quicker to start a fire by striking flint against steel than by striking flint against iron pyrite.
Chinese Matches History: Facts and Science Behind How the First Chinese Match was Made
In the sixth century CE, during the Chen dynasty, a clever maid had a new idea on how to start fires.
The story goes that the palace she lived in was under a long siege by a neighboring states’ ruler and his army. When the palace staff ran out of kindling or other items to use in building fires for cooking and heating, the maid dipped the ends of small pieces of pine sticks into sulfur.
Once the sulfur dried, the sticks made fire when rubbed together or lit by sparks. This allowed larger pieces of wood to be used to build the fire and it was quicker than striking a flint rock against steel to produce sparks. These first pine sticks or Chinese matches were essentially developed, manufactured, and used to keep the people in the palace fed and warm.
About four hundred years later around 950 CE, a book written by T’ao Ku, Records of the Unworldly and the Strange, described a similar method of dipping pine sticks in sulfur to produce fire. T’ao Ku described that the sulfur-dipped sticks were stored for later use.
The ancient Chinese, as early as the sixth century BCE, knew about sulfur. They’ve used it in Traditional Chinese Medicine since to at least the second century CE.
Another name for sulfur is brimstone or burning stone, which lead to the discovery in the eleventh century CE by Daoists, of gunpowder, a mixture of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal.
Chinese Matches: For More than Making Fire
From there early start, matches became an essential part of everyday life in China.
Matches become so important for the Chinese people that from 1600 to 1911 that the Chinese government used matches as one of its means to make money through profits and taxes. The government had a monopoly on the manufacturing and selling of Chinese matches.
This way of making money for the government treasuries was a common practice during the Chinese dynasties. One example is the control of iron and salt works, melting of metals for minting coins, and production of alcohol by the government of the Western Han dynasty emperor, Wudi.
Chinese Matches: The Importance of Wooden Matchsticks for More Than Fire
Wooden matchsticks have had many uses over the years. One interesting example is that they are used to find tender or sore spots for acupuncture of the ear. The end of the matchstick is gently pushed into the skin to find sensitive spots, which provides a spot for the acupuncturist to insert acupuncture needles.
Since modern manufacturing techniques allows for wooden matchsticks to have a uniform size of one side (1/10 of an inch), they are used as a measuring device in everything from hand analysis to food preparation.
Even items not made from matchsticks use the term. For example, window shades made from precisely cut pieces of bamboo are known as matchstick shades.