For centuries, fireworks have been an integral — and earsplitting — part of the Chinese holiday experience. Most often resembling firecrackers, the deafening noise they produce is widely considered key to setting a festive mood, and people will light them in celebration of everything from weddings and business openings to the downfall of corrupt officials.
Yet for all their traditional popularity, fireworks fit awkwardly into the rhythms of modern life. It was one thing to set off a string of explosives outside your house when China was still a largely rural, agricultural nation; it’s quite another to do so outside a modern apartment building that's home to thousands of strangers. While some urban residents have continued to light fireworks regardless of the risks involved, others — along with many urban governments — are worried about their potential contributions to environmental and noise pollution, as well as the obvious fire hazard they pose. In response to these concerns, over the past few decades many Chinese cities have instituted full or partial firework bans.
Underlying this issue is the broader question of how best to balance history and modernity in contemporary China. The rate at which China has urbanized over the past 40 years is forcing Chinese to adapt many of their traditional rituals — some of which date back hundreds or even thousands of years — to a very different way of life. Fireworks make for an interesting test case: Which of China’s traditions can and should be preserved, and which are better left in the past?
China’s fireworks obsession dates back hundreds of years, and they are closely linked to China’s most important holiday: Spring Festival. According to legend, as Chinese New Year approaches, a monster named Nian crosses over into the world of the living and must be driven off with bright lights and loud noises — which, as luck would have it, fireworks happen to provide in abundance.
In modern times, however, the use of fireworks in the country’s rapidly expanding urban areas poses something of a threat. In 1986, over the course of a single Spring Festival, 446 people were injured as a result of fireworks accidents in Beijing alone. Feeling action was necessary, the Beijing municipal government decided to put some restrictions on the use of fireworks within the city later that same year. In 1988, Shanghai took it a step further, outright banning the sale and use of fireworks in the city center, a policy Beijing also adopted in 1993. Soon, other cities followed suit. Even with the bans, however, there were still 8,532 firework-related accidents and 9,349 firework-related deaths in China between 1985 and 2005.
Yet despite the risks involved, many urban residents strongly opposed these bans when they were first imposed, complaining that a Spring Festival without fireworks was no true Spring Festival at all. In 2005, when the Beijing municipal government lifted its ban on the use of fireworks over Spring Festival, surveys showed more than 60 percent of Beijing residents were in favor of ending the ban. Soon, many of the cities that had hopped on the ban’s earlier bandwagon once again rushed to follow the capital’s lead by loosening their restrictions.
The shift from prohibition to restriction reflected a growing official consensus that allowances should be made to preserve and protect local customs and traditions. Yet while fireworks may have received a temporary reprieve, the government has continued to suppress many other cultural traditions that it sees as feudal or backward. There is still considerable debate at the policy-making level on how to best balance the important role fireworks play in traditional Chinese culture against the needs of modern society, with officials and experts split broadly into three factions.
The first faction, typically referred to in the media as the “pro-ban faction,” is — as their name suggests — in favor of a sweeping ban on the use of fireworks in urban areas. As this group sees it, fireworks are akin to a folk superstition with no place in a modern, rational city, where they are liable to cause fires, injuries, and even deaths, while also contributing to both air and noise pollution. Fireworks, they believe, are fundamentally incompatible with modernity, and the practice should be replaced with something better suited to contemporary life.
On this last point, they have plenty of examples to use. Other traditions surrounding Spring Festival have evolved significantly in recent years: The holiday once centered around returning home and calling on one’s neighbors is now one of the peak travel periods in the Chinese calendar, while friends send each other e-greetings instead of visiting in person.
On the other side of the debate is the anti-ban faction. Members of this group favor protecting and preserving the traditional role of fireworks in Chinese celebrations, and believe that an outright ban will cost China a critical part of its cultural heritage. In recent years, this faction has derived support from broader government initiatives aimed at protecting the country’s cultural heritage, as well as sweeping state-led efforts to safeguard and promote traditional Chinese culture. The anti-ban faction points out that many of China’s historic customs and traditions are disappearing, and something as closely tied to the country’s cultural identity as fireworks should not be so lightly cast aside.
Standing between the two are those who prefer the middle ground. In favor of compromise, they recognize the importance of fireworks’ role in traditional Chinese culture, and oppose an outright ban. At the same time, they also acknowledge the potential problems inherent in the act of setting explosives off in the middle of a crowded city, and are willing to support what they see as reasonable restrictions on their usage. In addition to calling on the government to take a more active role in regulating the fireworks industry — in the belief that fireworks can be made safer and more environmentally friendly — they also propose to cut down on the desire of individuals to set off fireworks in the first place by organizing state-run fireworks shows, much like those held around the United States on the Fourth of July.
Yet while the experts were busy debating, the public may have decided the question for them. In 2017, firework sales in Beijing dropped by 30 percent compared to the previous year, and according to a poll of city residents conducted that same year, more than 80 percent of Beijingers said they did not intend to set off fireworks during Spring Festival. A 2014 survey from Shanghai showed that 81 percent of residents supported expanding the scope of the fireworks ban to cover the rest of the city.
This waning interest in fireworks is tied to growing environmental awareness on the part of urban populations increasingly fed up with the poor air quality in China’s cities. In recent years, residents of major Chinese urban areas — including Beijing — have spent months each winter choking on smog. Thus, the prospect of a weeklong haze of firework smoke may seem less enticing than it once did. In the abovementioned 2017 poll, when Beijing residents were asked why they did not plan to set off fireworks, the most commonly cited answer was concern over their environmental impact, followed by a general lack of interest and the potential risk of personal harm.
Perhaps this is a sign that the government should take a less active role in mediating China’s transition from traditional to modern society. Rather than trying to dictate changes from above, it could simply ensure a safe public space in which people can exchange ideas and let them decide for themselves how to resolve the issue — basing laws on whatever consensus is reached. In short, the best way to protect China’s customs is a legal approach grounded in realism, compromise, and a back-and-forth between state and society.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A man walks down the street, while behind him fireworks are set off in celebration of Chinese New Year in Shanghai, Jan. 31, 2014. Carlos Barria/Reuters/VCG)