Why we should be glad fireworks are illegal in America
Happy Chinese New Year （新年快乐）from The Study Abroad Blog. The actual start of the Chinese New Year a.k.a. Spring Festival (春节） was the 23rd of January, but since it lasts for 15 days, I think I can say Happy New Year and still be in the clear for another 3 days. Knowing both that it’s the biggest Chinese holiday and that the Chinese do it bigger than we do any holiday in America, I was looking forward to my first Chinese New Year experience, and what an experience it was…
An Idealized Picture Of Chinese New Year – Some Spring Festival Traditions
As with many things in Chinese culture, the Chinese New Year centers on myth and legend. While there are multiple versions (at least from what I can tell), the basic plot is that a dragon/mythical beast conveniently named “Nián” or “Year” would come on the first day of New Year to incite a little chaos – eat livestock, crops, villagers, etc. At some point in history, the villagers discovered that the dragon was not a fan of the color red. From then on, every time the New Year came the villagers would hang red lanterns and red cut-outs on windows and doors, and light firecrackers to frighten away the dragon.
Spring Festival hasn’t changed all that much in modern times. Depending on when the holiday falls in the lunar calender, everyone heads home right around New Year’s Eve day. (And when I say home, I mean to their ancestral homeland somewhere in the vast reaches of China.)
– Eating Dumplings “Jiaozi”: Jiaozi is the traditional food for Spring Festival here in the north of China. Originally jiaozi referred to the moment “across midnight”. The Chinese name for the period between 11:00 midnight and 1.00 the next morning is called zi and jiao means “across”. The Chinese language involves a lot of play on words.
– Red Envelopes “Hongbao”: Red envelopes are passed out from adults to unmarried juniors and children. I’d say 9 times out of 10 the envelope has cash. According to my best Chinese friend, there is no actual age limit for receiving envelopes although usually once you hit 18, you stop getting them from everyone in the generation above you (i.e. parents, aunts, uncles, etc.). Of course immediately after telling me that, he whipped out a massive wad of 100 kuai bills and says, “but you can still accept them from your grandparents!”.
– Fireworks: Fireworks have been used to scare away spirits since ancient times, which makes sense seeing as the Chinese are credited with inventing gunpowder. There’s an obsession with lighting fireworks in this country, and if you’ve ever seen the movie “V for Vendetta”, midnight on New Year’s Eve resembles the final seen when V blows up Parliament.
This was the view from my apartment 7 stories up – and it wasn’t quite midnight yet
– Exchanging Gifts: Small gifts are usually exchanged between friends and relatives. I’ve heard from more than one of my Chinese friends that this part chews the root – and I can believe that. Being dragged around for days on end to sit and make small talk with your parents friends that you probably don’t really know all that well or relatives you probably see enough anyway just doesn’t seem that fun.
You could write a whole book on Spring Festival customs, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
My Chinese New Year
My Chinese New Year was relatively laid back. Considering that most of the New Year customs involve returning home and doing things with your family for a week, and that I’m 14,000 miles away from any blood relatives, I just tried to take in as much of the holiday as I could.
My friends parents were visiting from the States, and they took us out to a Tibetan restaurant for dinner (which is becoming a common holiday theme). Because everyone returns home, Beijing is almost empty during the first few days of Spring Festival, and we happened to be the only people at the restaurant. It made for quick service. Afterwords, I came back to my apartment, prepped my eardrums and at midnight, I went outside and watched people from my building and the neighborhood light off fireworks for a few hours (note “V for Vendetta” reference above).
The next day we went to one of the Temple Festivals at the Temple of the Earth. It had the feel of an American country fair with an Asian influence. There was karaoke, carnival games, street food, incenses lighting, performances by different dance groups, and more red lanterns than I’ve ever seen. I didn’t witness any dragon parades (although I heard there was a pretty legit imperial re-enactment going down at the Temple of Heaven), but if you’re a fan of cartoons, Bugs Bunny made an appearance.
And that was the gist of my Chinese New Year. There were other Temple Festivals during the week, but the cold wind and weather, coupled with the fact that I assumed they were all similar, deterred me from going to any more. Besides the festivals (and the subway stations outside the festivals), the city was relatively dead. Restaurants were closed for most of the week, cab drivers were reluctant to pick anyone up because they obviously didn’t want to be working, and by the end of the week, I had discovered a minor hatred for fireworks…
Why I’m Glad Fireworks Are Illegal In America
Just as I’m a fan of watching fireworks on the 4th of July in America, I also enjoyed them in China on New Year’s Eve and the night or two after. By Wednesday, however, my attitude had sadly changed. In my opinion, the tradition of enjoying the bright colors and occasional loud noise from lighting fireworks, once representing protection from evil spirits, has become a hazardous hell of annoyance, aimlessness, and carelessness. I’m not kidding.
Half of the fireworks don’t even have sparks or flares (what’s the point of a firework without the “fire”?), so what you’re left with is a deafening cannon blow waking you up at 7:00 AM every morning. Children hide behind corners and throw lit fireworks in front of people without any thought that a firework is essentially a very small bomb that can do some not so small damage to the human body – this actually happened to my friends. Grown men shoot the equivalent of a Roman candle out of their 4th story window without considering what direction they’re aiming it in, or light what looks like a 15 foot firework streamer and then run inside because the noise is so loud that they’re willing to annoy everyone else, but can’t stand it themselves.
A city with one of the worst pollution problems in the world drowns itself in a sea of dust and ash for multiple weeks, so when you walk into a restaurant, you have to help your friends pick ash out of their hair. There’s such a lack of regulation by city officials and common sense by ordinary citizens that just recently, fireworks have caused massive damage to buildings (Beijing’s 522ft Television Cultural Center tower anyone?), and even the loss of life.
I’m not a Spring Festival Scrooge. I’m someone who questions the meaning of a tradition, and when that tradition starts to compromise people’s daily life, or the meaning starts to lose it’s relevance or importance, I say there’s no need to continue doing it – no matter how many thousands of years old it is. I hold onto the hope that Spring Festival (and more specifically the lighting of fireworks) still carries a more traditional meaning in other parts of China, and that my experience next year will be a little different.
Sorry Beijing, someone had to say it – but don’t worry. For some odd reason, even when I’m engulfed in a cancer causing cloud of ash while listening to a chorus of car alarms and deafening fireworks, I still love you.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!