Firecrackers



Firecrackers are called baozhu (爆竹) in Mandarin, meaning “bamboo explosions”.1 In ancient China, bamboo stems were burnt to create small explosions in order to drive away evil spirits. In later times, the lighting of firecrackers signalled a joyous occasion and became an integral aspect of the Chinese New Year Eve celebrations.

Origins
Gunpowder was invented in China some time during the Tang Dynasty (618–905 CE) and early records of firecrackers describe them as gunpowder or explosive chemicals like sulphur wrapped in paper and lighted by a paper fuse. The provinces of Hunan and Guangdong were famed for their advanced production of firecrackers. By the Song dynasty, fireworks had been invented but its use was never as prolific as that of the firecrackers.2


Legends
It is believed that the universe has good forces of energy (shen (神), or “benevolent spirits”) and bad forces of energy (gui (鬼), or “malevolent spirits”). Creating a din, especially by using firecrackers, is believed to dispel the malignant spirits.3

Shan Sao

One of the legends surrounding the use of firecrackers is about a foul-smelling giant named Shan Sao who lived in the deep forests in the Western side of a village. He caused the villagers to be afflicted with diseases, accompanied by feelings of hot and cold. The people of the village decided to scare the giant away by creating a din. They constructed a heap of bamboo stems and set it alight, burning in a series of explosions. This caused the monster to be frightened and he scooted off, never to be seen in the area again.4

Chinese New Year
The use of firecrackers on the eve of Chinese New Year is believed to be connected to a certain Li Tien. He had a neighbour named Chung Sou who fell ill frequently and was believed to be possessed by malignant spirits of the hills. Li suggested detonating bamboo stems suspended from dozens of poles. Thus on the eve of the Lunar New Year, these stems were burnt, causing the bamboo stems to explode with a loud noise and scaring away the evil spirits. As a result, the creation of a din by burning bamboo stems or the beating of drums became a ritual observed every Chinese New Year’s Eve and seeped into other Chinese festivals.5

Rituals using firecrackers
As its purpose is originally to drive evil spirits away, firecrackers were also used during funerals. Over time, however, the use of firecrackers evolved to take on a more positive connotation. They came to be used to commemorate joyous events such as wedding processions and rituals during festivals and auspicious occasions. 

Funeral procession
It is believed that while a newly departed soul sought to enter the Western Paradise, stray ghosts would come by and hinder the departed soul. Taoist priests would chant liturgies to guide the spirit, and firecrackers were ignited to dispel these ghosts.6

Qing Ming
Similarly during the Qing Ming Festival, or All Soul’s Day, firecrackers were ignited to chase away the hungry spirits that might be lurking around to eat the food offered to ancestors.7

Theatrical and pugilistic exhibition
Firecrackers were also let off at theatrical and pugilistic exhibitions, particularly where there was the use of fast-moving sword and spear duels. This was done to avoid accidents because accidents are believed to be caused by lurking mischievous spirits.8

Prosperity
The Chinese deem the incessant firing of crackers as mantanghong, meaning a “sign of prosperity”. Often on the eve of Chinese New Year, in wishing for a prosperous year, the firing of crackers is so extensive that the floor is carpeted with the red debris of broken wrappers of the cracker. It is also for this reason that crackers were lighted by a well-known personality to inaugurate the official opening of a significant building.9

Apology
If a Chinese is, for example, assaulted by another man, and the matter was settled out of court, the aggrieved could demand a gift of firecrackers. This signifies an apology to the Chinese. They often come accompanied with a pair of red candles and a set of “golden flowers” with red silk threads.10

Types of firecrackers
There are two main types of firecrackers used by the Chinese abroad and in China. The single packet type has a shorter detonation duration and is known as yibenwanli (一本万利), meaning that its purchaser would gain 10,000 times over. The second type of firecracker is a streamer known as bawangbian (霸王鞭), which means an “explosive whip [that] announces prosperity”. It is usually hung from the top of a building and ignited from below creating a spectacular effect of moving blasts as the streamer lighted up.11

Firecrackers in Singapore
Firecrackers proved so popular that they were lit during the festivities of other races and religions including Christmas EveDeepavali and Hari Raya Puasa.12 However, firecrackers were banned in Singapore in March 1972 after two unarmed policemen were attacked on New Year’s Eve as they attempted to prevent celebrants at Upper Serangoon Road from letting off firecrackers without a permit. The permit system, a precursor to the Dangerous Fireworks Act, was established after Chinese New Year celebrations in 1970 caused six deaths, 68 injured victims and at least S$400,000 in damages.13 A maximum of S$5,000 and/or imprisonment of up to two years can be imposed for the possession or discharge of fireworks under the Dangerous Fireworks Act.14 Today, the only sign of firecrackers during Chinese New Year are as long streamers of dummy crackers serving as doorway decorations. 



Author

Suchitthra Vasu



References
1. Lai, K. F. (1984). The Hennessy book of Chinese festivals. Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Asia, pp. 12–13. (Call no.: RSING 394.2 LAI-[CUS]); Yuan, H. (2008). Chinese fireworks. DLPS Faculty Publications. Retrieved 2016, April 4 from Western Kentucky University website: http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=dlps_fac_pub

2. Lai, K. F. (1984). The Hennessy book of Chinese festivals. Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Asia, pp. 12–13. (Call no.: RSING 394.2 LAI-[CUS])
3. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH, p. 109. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
4. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH, p. 109. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
5. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH, p. 109. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
6. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH, p. 110. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
7. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH, p. 110. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
8. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH, p. 110. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
9. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH, p. 112. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
10. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH, p. 112. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
11. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH, p. 110. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
12. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH, p. 114. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
13. Police warn diehards against New Year fireworks. (1985, February 11). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Singapore. Dangerous Fireworks Act. (2014 Rev. ed.). Retrieved from Attorney General’s Chambers website: http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/aol/search/display/view.w3p;ident=821e116f-0a01-4e4d-87c6-e38f961bb34c;page=0;query=DocId%3A%224e1e1770-ae8b-4cef-9e02-f87717e2ee84%22%20Status%3Ainforce%20Depth%3A0;rec=0#pr6-he-



Further resources
Chinese Heritage. (1990). Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, p. 146.

(Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 CHI)

Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 16.
(Call no.: RSING 394.26951 TAN)



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Ethnic Communities>>Customs and Traditions
Singapore--Social life and Customs
People and communities>>Customs>>Festivities
Firecrackers--Singapore
Customs