Yanshui Fireworks Festival
Yanshui Fireworks Festival (Yánshuǐ Fēngpào 鹽水蜂炮)
Once a year, the little town of Yanshui draws attention to itself with a big bang. Over the years they have found a real recipe to get noticed. If you want to call on the gods to come take notice of you, what better way than to launch a cacophony of fireworks? And if you want to get the attention of thrill-seeking tourists, why not point the fireworks at the crowd? Whether or not the gods are taking notice of these fireworks displays is hard to measure, but year after year, this little town in the north of Tainan County gets the attention of thousands of festival goers and tourists. It is also getting some international attention. In some on-line articles, it’s been voted the 3rd most dangerous tradition and the 5th most dangerous festival in the world.
The history behind this festival began in the late 19th century. A cholera epidemic broke out about 1875 and the town of Yanshui was hit hard by it. After several years, the population had dwindled and the people decided to call on Guān Dì (關帝), the god of war, to help give them strength in their fight against the disease. They used fireworks to attract the attention of the the god, and have been doing so ever since.
The event takes place on the 14th and 15th day of the lunar new year, handily wrapping up all Chinese New Year festivities. It coincides with the Lantern Festival. Things begin in Yanshui on the the 14th day with a parade of the Guan Di idol and fire crackers a plenty. During the two days, fireworks are set off throughout the town in different locations. The main event begins on the 15th and is held in a large sports field. This main event goes from about 9pm to 11pm, but much of the celebration starts early and goes on until sunrise.
A lot of the fireworks are of the standard variety, and better fireworks may be seen in other towns and cities during Lantern Festival (though the shear amount may not be equaled). The special thing about the Yanshui Festival – and what makes it so dangerous – is the beehive fireworks. This is a cage filled with bottle rockets that are set off into the crowd. The cage becomes a nasty ‘hive of bees’ ready to lash out and sting those nearby. As a dare and a thrilling experience, people crowd around the cages and let themselves get pelted with bottle rockets. Traditionally, it is thought to be good luck for the new year to be hit by fireworks and there are those religious few who have sought to endure the pain in only a loin cloth to show off their spiritual mettle, but mostly people just do it for fun. Common people get dressed up in ‘armor’ and get as close as they dare. Or they just get as close as they can, given the crowds of people. The rockets shoot out quite far, however, and bounce around all over the place, so even at 30 meters you could still get stung. 30 meters is a safer distance though, and many people who didn’t bring a lot of protection hang out and observe from this distance or greater.
To protect yourself, you should try to cover all the skin on your body. A motorcycle helmet with full face protection is essential. A jacket or long-sleeved shirt is all you’ll need at medium distance, but if you’re getting right up there, you may want something like a heavy raincoat or padded jacket. Gloves would be a good idea if you’re getting in close as well. A real key piece of equipment is a towel or two wrapped around your neck. This not only protects your neck from stings, but also keeps the fire crackers from getting up into your helmet and causing some real damage to your ears and face. Personally, I didn’t go fully prepared and so I didn’t get closer than 10 or 15 meters. I was hit on the bare hands and it didn’t really hurt, but if you really want to get in there, protect yourself as much as possible. Many people get injured.
As dangerous as this sounds, this festival can also be a family affair if you keep your distance from the beehives. Many people bring their children to see the fireworks and enjoy the atmosphere. You might want to bring some large cardboard to shield yourselves from stray firecrackers.
There are multiple ways to go by car and they all take over an hour. You could take the regular bus, but on the event days there are buses that go straight to Yanshui from Tainan City. This will probably change from year to year, so it’s best to look into that when the time draws near.