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After reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, I was surprised to see a lot of references to 砲響 (the sound of cannonade). Here's a few examples:

嚴綱鼓譟吶喊,直取麴義,義軍見嚴綱兵來,都伏而不動;直到來得至近,一聲砲響,八百弓弩手一齊俱發。

三國演義 第七回

城中全無動靜,眾軍一齊擁入。只聽得一聲砲響,伏兵四起。曹軍急退,背後張繡親驅勇壯殺來。

三國演義 第十八回

Obviously there was no gunpowder or cannons back then (the story was set in the 3rd century AD, and gunpowder was thought to have been invented in the 9th century AD), and the character 砲 suggests that it's a catapult instead. But the passages and wording (一聲砲響) suggests that it makes a single loud sound heard across the battlefield. Were catapults really that loud? Why would it be a single sound, and not a series, i.e. if a commander has multiple catapults and orders a volley? Or is it something other than a catapult?

  • It seems that 号炮 began to appear from Yuan Dynasty, especially in 元杂剧(Yuan poetic drama). And 三国演义 is written in Ming Dynasty, and it might be influenced by 元杂剧, they're all literary works. So I think it doesn't mean 号炮 was used in 三国 period actually. It seems before Yuan Dynasty, 金/鼓/旗/火 are usually used as command signals. – songyuanyao Jul 11 '16 at 2:57
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    Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a fiction written in Ming dynasty. It's not an official history. So better not to be serious about the details. – ElpieKay Jul 11 '16 at 3:58
  • Also note the differencebetween 砲 and 炮. – SOFe Jul 11 '16 at 8:31
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Brewitt-Taylor's English translation of San-guo yanyi calls it a "bomb." This was a kind of "signal bomb" 號砲 or 信砲. The earliest real historical record of these seems to have been the Yuan dyansty, as Song Yuanyao's comment notes. Joseph Needham's volume on "The Gunpowder Epic" has a brief mention of the use of these, for instance in the Mongol attack on Yangzhou in 1276. I think it is safe to say that Luo's description of battles where these are employed is simply anachronistic.

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i checked briefly, the earliest usage of "砲響" and "砲聲" was in the book 錢塘遺事, by 劉一清 of 元 dynasty.

p41

卷九, on page 49, it recorded the event in 揚州, on 德祐丙子二月二十日, which was march 7th, in the year of 1276.

clearly, joseph needham is a marvellous scholar :)

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It's a quite interesting topic to discuss. I think 一 in 一聲砲響 is more like a correspondence to the 齊 in 一齊俱發 since a one big loud sound can indicate all catapults(or something else) at one time while several of them can not. So as the second example which has more of an emphasis of that sudden moment all hidden soldiers came out. With all description like this, the reader will feel the tense, otherwise will not. About the catapults, I think what you said makes sense.

I'm speaking from the angle of a native speaker but not a professional linguistic.

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According to Wiktionary, 砲 can be defined as a catapult. It is acceptable to me that there have been catapults for a long time, probably dating back to the Zhou dynasty (warring states period) or even earlier {{citation needed}}.

In Chinese chess, there is a piece called 砲 or 炮. There are too many confusing sources for the origin of Chinese chess, so I'm not going to explore about it here. In Chinese chess, the 炮/砲 piece is used in a way similar to the 車, or the castle in western chess, except that when it eats another piece, there must be any piece between the 炮/砲 and the victim. This suggests that the 炮/砲 should be a projectile, probably with a high arc.

According to many sources, Chinese chess must be already present (and look like what it looks like nowadays) during the Han dynasty. As the OP mentioned, gunpowder had not been invented back then. I saw in a pretty popular (meaning that its historical background is likely to be reliable) film that catapults existed even before the Han dynasty. Therefore, it is very likely that 砲 actually means catapults.

How does 一聲砲響 work? No idea. Maybe the ancient catapults worked in a way such that the launch is very loud because of the heavy load? Or maybe the stone hit the ground at high momentum immediately? I have no idea, but these are possible reasons.

Note: instruments like 撀鼓 or 鳴金 were mainly used in battles in ancient China, but I can't relate 砲 to it in any ways.

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