East vs West: Fireworks

washingtonGrowing up in the US, I’ve always associated fireworks with Independence Day and New Years celebrations. On these special days, big cities and hillbillies would light up the sky with fireworks displays, and everybody would go, “ooh… ah…”

But fireworks weren’t always used for this purpose. Back when the Chinese invented gunpowder sometime between 9AD and 12AD, they originally thought, “wow, this stuff is loud. Let’s use it to scare away demons,” marking the beginning of the use of fireworks in festivals. (Little did they know that loud noises only scared away harmless, loser-demons).

A short time after that, they decided, “wow, these things are neat, let’s stare at them in awe,” marking the beginning of the use of gunpowder in fireworks.  And of course, the jerk in the crew saw it and said, “wow, let’s use this to launch projectiles at our enemies.”

Thanks to the prolific trade between Europe and the Orient in the 13th century, some guy from Europe saw the gun powder and thought, “wow, launching projectiles! Let’s just go with it!” And thus he harnessed the power to destroy armies and level towns.

Jumping ahead to modern times, both the Eastern and Western worlds still use gun powder as weapons similarly (inside firearms pointed toward neighbors), but our uses of gunpowder for fireworks have diverged slightly.

Specifically, a common fireworks display in the United States involves loading a barge full of explosives and lighting them over water in a manner that allows spectators to enjoy the light show from a safe distance. In many cases, music is played in sync with the fireworks.

taipei101fireworksIn Taiwan, however, fireworks are brought closer to the audience. For example, on the New Year’s celebration of 2008, the skyscraper Taipei 101 was rigged with tons of explosives to serve as the launching point for Taipei’s fireworks. On a side note, I like the guy who said, “Now that we’ve spent several years building the world’s tallest skyscraper, let’s rig it with explosives to celebrate the New Year of the less historically significant of the two calendars we currently use.” Ehh, okay, to be fair, this sounds a lot more reckless than it really was… unlike the Yenshui Fireworks Festival, which is as reckless as it sounds.

Yenshui Fireworks FestivalIn the Yenshui Fireworks Festival, fireworks are brought even closer to the audience in a participatory BYOFMHTCT-style celebration. That is, Bring Your Own Fireworks, Motorcycle Helmets, Thick Clothes, and Towels. In this celebration that dates back to the 19th century when fireworks were used to fight plague, fireworks are fired in all directions within the crowd itself. Participants, wearing home-made body armor consisting of thick jackets, a motorcycle helmet, and a towel, try to get hit by them for good luck.

Now, before you start your own Yenshui style festival, remember this: these nuts have been doing this for centuries, and though they were the descendants of the same guys who thought fireworks could fight plague, they do have some idea of what they’re doing, as opposed to you. Fireworks cause people to lose things that are attached to them and that they want. Bleeding is often involved. Don’t do it.

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