HUNAN, Central China — Every month, a government worker visits Luo at home in his village Wenjia to make him sign a piece of paper — proof that he hasn’t left the area.
It’s part of a three-year suspended prison sentence the 73-year-old was handed in September for the illegal manufacture of explosives. But Luo — who, like other interviewees in this article, only wanted his surname used to keep his legal case private — thinks he was wrongfully prosecuted.
Before that, Luo was well-known in his village as a hand cannon performer who was hired for funerals and other ceremonies, a common practice in his corner of Hunan that goes back at least a century.
A hand cannon is a heavy-set collection of thick, short barrels that hold explosive powder. During a funeral, accompanied by the sounds of suonas, firecrackers, and crying, Luo would set off the powder to create a loud bang and plumes of black smoke. It is thought to ward off bad fortune.
More than a decade ago, Luo suffered from health problems that prevented him from holding the heavy cannons, and he gave up performing. Tucked away in his home were some five kilograms of “black powder” — a homemade concoction made of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal chips.
After authorities identified it as gunpowder, it was this leftover stash that got Luo into trouble. He was one of six active and retired handcannon performers and powder makers in the townships Longtan and Gantian who, by the fall of 2021, had been given sentences for the illegal manufacture, trade, or storage of explosives. Most of them were elderly. They had no idea the private manufacture of black powder had been outlawed.
Cases like these have sprung up with some frequency over the last decade, each time arousing national curiosity and concern. In 2013, a man in the southern Guangdong province was imprisoned for more than 10 years for the manufacture of explosive powder. In the wake of the Hunan sentences, legal scholars once again urged judges and rural officials to find a more lenient way to enforce the law in the face of long-standing folk customs.
A handcannon performance at a funeral in Zhuanqiao Village, Longtan Town, Hunan province, November 2021. Ming Que/The Paper
Luo’s home stands at the foot of a mountain. Every morning and evening, he sits outside, looking out at the nearby rice paddies and the mountains beyond. More than 10 years ago, Luo was diagnosed with bronchitis. Ever since, he has spent his time mostly at home with his wife, interspersed by rare visits from other villagers or his grandchildren.
On the night of July 20, Luo was watching TV when three police officers arrived unannounced on the basis that they’d received reports he was storing gunpowder. Luo was very confused and asked the officers what gunpowder was. One of them explained that it was the “black powder” he once used to fire hand cannons.
He then remembered that there was actually some leftover in the house from years ago, stored in plastic bottles, and told the officers where to find them. According to Luo, the police told him that it was just a routine inquiry and that this would be the end of it. So he told them everything he knew.
Not long after, however, public prosecutors in Zhuzhou, the city that administers the township where Luo lives, filed a lawsuit against him. It stated that Luo had stopped making gunpowder because of poor health, but that, seven or eight years ago, Luo’s wife, surnamed Chen, found some potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal at home. Not wanting to waste it, she turned it into gunpowder under the guidance of her husband.
Luo explains that, when the police showed up, his wife was worried he could not make the trip to the police station to give a statement, so she volunteered to take responsibility. “He has bronchitis and emphysema,” Chen says. “He hasn’t left the house for more than 10 years. He couldn’t go to the police station.”
Chen, 72, gets out of breath walking and suffers from motion sickness. The evening after the police visit, the couple’s son took Chen to the police station by motorcycle. Chen remembers she spent the whole night giving her statement. The next morning, she saw her husband sitting in front of their house waiting for her. They thought that would be the end of the matter, but Chen would be summoned to the station several more times to give statements.
On Sep. 29, Zhuzhou Lukou District People’s Court held a session in Luo’s home where they issued their sentence: Luo and Chen were found to have manufactured gunpowder in violation of the provisions regarding the administration of explosives. Their behavior violated provisions in Article 125 of the Criminal Law by illegally manufacturing explosives. They were each sentenced to three years in prison, but were placed on three years of probation.
Luo couldn’t understand. Last year, an old hand cannon performer in the village had passed away. The man’s son didn’t know how to fire hand cannons and thought the powder was unsafe, so he called the local police and had them come take away his father’s old musket, black powder, and hand cannon. Luo remembers that when the police arrived, they only took the musket, saying that the black powder and hand cannon were not dangerous. The man’s son recalls that the officers only took them away when he insisted.
A view of Wenjia Village from Luo’s home, November 2021. Ming Que/The Paper
Traditions and bad practices
The custom of firing hand cannons has deep roots in the remote village where Luo was born. At the time, hand cannons were popular in the village; eight out of 10 families owned one. The villagers would fire them during Spring Festival, Tomb Sweeping Day, weddings, and funerals — the loud noise adding to the atmosphere and also “frightening away bad fortune.”
Luo remembers that when he was a child, two of his aunts got married, with the grooms both arriving wielding hand cannons. After collecting their brides, they fired the hand cannons all the way home.
His father, who would fire hand cannons for other people, died when Luo was six. He had already taught his skills to Luo’s older brother. When Luo grew up, he’d watch his brother put the powder into the holes, and then use soil or small stones to seal them. Next, he would insert a long, thin twig in a small hole near the base. Once this was lit, the powder would immediately fly out of the holes with a loud bang. His brother told Luo to open his mouth when the cannon fired so he wouldn’t hurt his ears.
Luo liked watching hand cannons be fired. He was amazed that something so small could make a noise so loud that it reverberated through the whole village, even louder than firecrackers.
At the age of 17, he learned the skill from his brother. That same year, their mother died. Gradually, he took up firing them himself, for which he would occasionally charge a small fee. After Luo got married and had children, he also learned from his brother how to make the powder — a craft which is generally kept secret.
In the old times, Luo bought potassium nitrate and sulfur from the supply and marketing cooperative, a state-run store, which he then used to make black powder at home. Later, after the cooperative was wound down, he would buy it from a factory in a nearby county.
Photographs show the process of setting up and firing a handcannon. From @梦回黄土矿 on WeChat
He was so good at making the powder and getting the cannon to produce a loud noise that people would often specially seek him out. Other performers would even come to him to buy powder.
Firing hand cannons was only a side job for Luo — something he’d do perhaps eight or nine times a year at most. In the early 1970s, he worked as a storeman in the village and often helped villagers lay out grain to dry. In 1973, his daughter was born (she died at the age of 40), and soon after he had a son. After China’s reform and opening-up kicked off in the early 1980s, he became a team leader in the village, a role he stayed in for 10 years.
Luo said that during these years he’d never been stopped from firing hand cannons by the town government or village officials.
The custom gradually lost popularity after 2000, but people still continued to practice it for funerals and ritual processions. As the villagers had more money, the amount of black powder they could set off increased to 10 to 15 kilograms at a time. Luo remembers that the last time he performed, he set off 10 kilograms over three days, earning over 30 yuan ($4.70 by today’s exchange rate).
Luo finally stopped over a decade ago when health problems meant he struggled to hold the hand cannons. For him, firing hand cannons is a tradition passed on by his ancestors. Fearing that the skill would be lost, he tried to teach his son how to do it, but the young man refused and would run away.
Among some of the younger people in the town, firing hand cannons came to be seen as a bad habit.
An official in Longtan says that firing hand cannons sometimes causes injuries and that the practice should have been abolished long ago.
One villager in his thirties recalls that when his grandfather died more than a decade ago, a man was invited to their home to fire hand cannons. However, the performer accidentally injured himself in an explosion and had to get more than 30 stitches in his hand.
Storing and buying “black powder”
Luo remembers a hand cannon performer from the neighboring town of Gantian coming to his house to buy black powder more than a decade ago.
That man was Zhang’s father. After his father passed away in 2003, Zhang, then 47, took over his role as a way to make ends meet. During a yearly ceremony held in his village from the first to the fifth day of the Lunar New Year, he would set off his cannons while a group of more than a dozen people carried a statue, beat drums, and banged gongs as they visited villagers’ homes to pray for blessings. He’d set off 10 kilograms of black powder and earn more than 1,000 yuan.
Zhang attended elementary school for a few years and can only write his own name. When he was younger, he did odd jobs in cities around Hunan province. Afterward he returned home where he made a living as a farmer, blacksmith, and firing hand cannons.
However, in the eyes of some villagers, Zhang and his father have been firing the cannons for more than 50 years without bringing their family any good fortune.
In the fall 29 years ago, Zhang’s two sons, aged six and eight, accidentally drowned in a pond outside their home while he and his wife were out harvesting crops. The couple were in their early thirties at the time, but were unable to have any more children because Zhang’s wife had undergone tubal ligation.
Zhang’s wife mends a slipper outside their house in Gantian Town, Hunan province, November 2021. Ming Que/The Paper
The family fell into a pit of loneliness and sadness. The pond has long since dried up. However, the couple still sometimes visit the site, feeling as if they could see the images of their two sons there. Zhang points to a spot on the ground not far away, saying: “Over there, that’s where the pond used to be.” Today, the area is overgrown with bushes.
After he finishes talking, Zhang walks to a small shack next to his house. He takes a red-hot iron out of the fire and starts to strike the metal without a word. In recent years, fewer and fewer people have come to him in need of blacksmith work, and he doesn’t earn much. Over the years, more people have been taking part in the ritual procession in the village, and Zhang became better at firing hand cannons.
At the end of 2019, Zhang went to the home of Peng in a nearby village to buy 10 kilograms of black powder. But then the pandemic hit, and the village canceled the ritual. A year later, the ceremony was cut short to just one day due to COVID-19 control measures. After returning home, Zhang put the remaining 15 kilograms of black powder into plastic bottles and stored them in the roof space above his kitchen.
Around noon on July 20, several police officers suddenly showed up.
Zhang recalls that he was doing a job in the neighboring village when his wife called. He immediately rushed home, where he saw the 16 bottles of black powder, two hand cannons, and primers laid out in front of his house. The police told him that the “black powder” was gunpowder, and that its manufacture and storage were illegal. Zhang was scared. He explained everything as honestly as he could, and said that he’d bought it from Peng.
That evening, three police officers visited Peng’s house and found nearly 59 kilograms of black powder, eight hand cannons, and several primers. Peng admitted that he had sold Zhang 20 kilograms of black powder, making a total profit of 560 yuan.
Since then, Peng has been taken to the police station several times to provide written statements. In September, Peng was sentenced to three years in prison. The verdict reduced his son to tears.
Zhang received a three-year suspended sentence. At the end of October, he went to the township government in Gantian to file an appeal. Speaking of Peng, Zhang felt guilty. “I was just telling the truth,” he says. “I didn’t know it’d go to court and that Peng would get such a severe sentence.”
An exterior view of Zhang’s house in Gantian Town, Hunan province, November 2021. Ming Que/The Paper
On Sep. 30, the Lukou District People’s Court in Zhuzhou City published an article on social media on sentences for manufacturing, trading, and storing gunpowder for use in firing hand cannons at funerals. It listed the cases of Luo and Chen, Peng, and another elderly villager also surnamed Chen, as well as his son.
Among the people involved, Chen, who is in his 80s, and his son were the first to be investigated by the police. In late June, Chen’s wife filed a police report after she lost 300 yuan while selling scrap at her home, possibly as the result of theft. She recalls that several police officers came to her home and stared at the black powder by her doorway, asking her what it was. She told them that it was used in the village for firing hand cannons, and that it was a mixture of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal.
Instead of finding out where her money went, the police launched an investigation into the black powder instead. A couple of weeks later, several officers returned and asked Chen whether he had any black powder at home. Chen, 81, was soon taken down to the station for further investigation, along with his eldest son, 53, who had helped his father transport the powder.
On Sep. 28, the father and son were both sentenced to three years’ probation.
Chen’s daughter says the court authorities had told her that while it was permitted to fire hand cannons, manufacturing the gunpowder was illegal. “But how can you fire the hand cannons if you don’t make black powder?” she asks.
Chen shows the four-path structure of a handcannon at home in Longtan Town, Hunan province, November 2021. Ming Que/The Paper
For a long time, Chen’s wife felt guilty, thinking that it was her police report that attracted the investigation and resulted in her husband and son being sentenced. “There are several other people in the village who fire hand cannons,” she says. “Why weren’t they investigated and sentenced?”
The couple have two sons and a daughter. Their eldest son lives in the same town as them, while their younger son and daughter moved to the city. Their grandchildren are either graduate students or are preparing to start university. The couple didn’t know what to tell their son-in-law, daughters-in-law, or grandchildren.
“Will the sentence affect my grandchildren? What about if they want to become civil servants or teachers?” Chen asks. Such jobs usually require family background checks, and a close relative’s criminal record may be cited as a cause for disqualification.
After the sentencing, the township of Longtan found itself under the spotlight and no one dared set off hand cannons anymore. Some villagers said that Longtan had banned the private ownership of muskets used for shooting birds as far back as 10 years ago. At the time, the local police station asked town and village officials to go from house to house collecting muskets. However, there were no official documents or notifications about the crackdown on gunpowder.
An official in charge of politics and law at the Longtan township government says that the local government has no authority to confiscate “black powder” or hand cannons, and the power to enforce the law lies with the police. They say that they have raised awareness on production safety every year, posting notices and informing villagers that it was forbidden to store guns and ammunition.
In response, the person in charge of the criminal investigation team at Lukou District police says that the hand cannon performers owning over 50 kilograms of gunpowder in their homes could do significant harm, causing an accidental explosion or becoming the target of thieves. In addition, the national government had issued more than one public notice. “If an accident occurred, wouldn’t people blame us for not investigating and for handling the case poorly?” he says.
Over the years, news articles have appeared online covering stories of people receiving sentences for owning hand cannons. But old customs die hard. After Chen, his son, and Zhang were investigated, their village committees each submitted evidence that the gunpowder was being used to fire hand cannons as part of a folk custom.
In early November, Luo said he previously had no idea that the “black powder” he was well-acquainted with was actually gunpowder, an illegal explosive. At first, he planned to appeal, but he couldn’t find a lawyer and didn’t know how to file one himself. In the end, he decided to give up. His life’s work now illegal, Luo feels depressed. He doubts his poor health will allow him to see the end of his sentence.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Yongle and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Chen holds an old handcannon at home in Longtan Town, Hunan province, November 2021. Ming Que/The Paper)