A boy sets off fireworks to celebrate the Lantern Festival, on the
15th day of last year's Lunar New Year, like many other youngsters
across the country.
Ask any Chinese what they like about celebrating Spring
Festival, and chances are most will say there is nothing quite like
starting off the Lunar New Year with a bang.
Adults still find it hard to resist, elders remain mesmerized
and young ones, of course, squeal with delight at the chance.
Children will always look forward to that time of the year when
they can hold in their hands the red-paper wrapped firecrackers -
the power to herald the new year and shake up the neighborhood.
Others might simply wait, watch and cover their ears as they
revel in a boisterous occasion befitting the most important time of
Most adults and seniors too, would have fond memories of the
treat, when they had to hide behind grown-ups before the blasts, or
sit and even stand on shoulders to take in the myriad of colors
from firecrackers that made it up into the night sky.
Firecrackers evoke emotions and meanings too many to fully
mention - a big family spending time together, the reaffirming of
bonds, the marking of one year to the next, and pure
The setting off of firecrackers during Spring Festival where
family members reconnect at reunions - an occasion much like
Christmas Eve in the West - is a celebration of culture and one
that the Chinese can trace back to 2000 BC.
Like any myth, explanations abound for such an association.
But all of them have to do with nian, a monster that could
swallow an entire village of people at one go.
Stories of nian's terrifying feats and humankind's efforts to
battle it - mostly told on the eve of the new year - also vary.
One popular version entails a wise old man passing on the
knowledge that nian feared loud noise and the color red.
So people put up red paper decorations on their windows and
doors, and lit red firecrackers and banged on drums at the year end
to scare off nian. They succeeded, and the monster never
Over the centuries, this attempt to ward off evil and guo nian -
or "survive the new year" - became deeply embedded in Chinese
There have been backlashes of the practice.
At the height of Western influence and political instability in
the 1920s, the Kuomintang government attempted to abolish the Lunar
New Year and the ways to celebrate it - including firecrackers. It
was a bid to combat superstition and introduce Western thought in a
The farce started with a notice in December 1927 by warlord Feng
Y-hsiang, or Feng Yuxiang, who also ordered the Henan, Shaanxi and
Gansu governments to convert to the Western calendar beginning with
Jan 1, 1928.
"All celebrations for the Lunar New Year must be shifted to the
Western new year," it said. "(We) must never celebrate lunar
Obviously, Feng's attempt failed ultimately.
Advocates of the Western calendar continued to lobby for the
change over the next two years. In 1929, Chiang Kai-shek's
government officially banned the lunar calendar and all relevant
celebrations from 1930 onwards.
Local administrations followed suit by shifting all
celebrations, including the use of firecrackers, to Jan 1 and even
banned the writing of spring couplets. In Anhui and Hebei
provinces, firecrackers were banned.
Similarly, in January 1930, the Beijing municipal government
went as far as to punish police chiefs in areas where the sound of
firecrackers were heard.
None of these worked.
Firecrackers, drums, bright lights, all-night revelry on the eve
of the new year - nothing has changed.
"All around, in the courtyards of homes and on the streets,
there was the sound of firecrackers, and the smell of sulfur in the
air. Fathers shed their dignity, grandfathers were more amiable
than ever, and children blew whistles, wore masks and played with
clay dolls," prominent scholar Lin Yutang wrote in the 1930s.
"The National Government of China has officially abolished the
Lunar New Year, but the Lunar New Year is still with us, and
refused to be abolished," he wrote.
"So amid the booming firecrackers, I sat down to the Lunar New
Year's Eve dinner. And I felt very happy in spite of myself," Lin
Decades later, in the 1980s, people were still embedded in the
same traditions their ancestors passed on. Hundreds of cities had
banned fireworks in urban areas out of security.
In one of the most widely reported cases, Beijing residents were
banned from lighting firecrackers in 1993.
But many persisted with the tradition. Now, more than 100 cities
that had banned firecrackers have lifted the restrictions during
the holiday season. Beijing, too, partially lifted the ban in 2005,
with an overwhelming majority of residents supporting the
The bans have been difficult to implement, in part because of
how closely linked firecrackers are with Chinese tradition, but
also because such traditions are different across the country.
Nationwide, people light the visual treats before or at the
stroke of midnight on the eve of the Lunar New Year and all of new
year's day, but local customs for setting firecrackers at other
In the north, firecrackers are a must on the morning of Po Wu,
the fifth day into the Lunar New Year and the birthday of the God
of Wealth. This is the day when people stay home and tidy rooms to
welcome the deity.
Once a family completes the cleanup, family members would set
large, red firecrackers over the garbage piled outside their
doorstep. The resulting blasts of the firecrackers would "sweep the
poor devils away", according to ancient beliefs.
In other - mostly southern - parts of the country, however, long
strings of firecrackers must also be used on the seventh day of the
new year, the birthday of mankind and the God of Fire, as well as
on the 15th day of the lunar calendar, the Lantern Festival and the
last day of the holiday season.
But with unprecedented snowstorms in the central, southern and
eastern provinces this month, the situation this year is bound to
The disruption of transport networks in Liuyang in Hunan
province, where the country's largest firecracker production base
is situated, has severely limited the firecracker industry
Power outages have also affected the transport of firecrackers
out of the province. But firecrackers bought by vendors as early as
last October are still available for residents in snow-hit
Changsha, the provincial capital, and other disaster-hit regions,
such as the cities of Jingzhou and Wuhan in Hubei province, local
This Nianhua, a traditional Chinese painting popular for new year
decorations, depicts the scene of how children celebrate Spring
Festival in the old days. Courtesy of deskcity.com
(China Daily February 5, 2008)