Lantern Festival 2011 was the day I arrived in China for the first time. I was dazzled that night, by the fireworks and firecrackers exploding in every alleyway as I walked down the streets of Nanjing, a study abroad student fresh off the plane.
So it is with disappointment that I read that Shanghai and other cities might ban the use of fireworks this Spring Festival if the air quality is too poor.
Air pollution is indeed a problem, but fireworks are just one contributing factor, and their use is a tradition worth preserving. Fireworks are a special cultural heritage of China and one that I, as a foreigner who enjoys experiencing Chinese culture, would have to see disappear.
Even if new regulations come to pass, it would be hard to stop the Chinese from launching fireworks. The traditions of hundreds of years are hard to change. Indeed, in Jiangsu, there are already some regulations targeting fireworks, but many nights in Nanjing, I would enjoy watching them light up the sky outside my window as someone somewhere celebrated a marriage or other event.
The use of fireworks to celebrate such occasions reflects something innate about the Chinese character. Chinese people may seem conservative and reserved at first, reluctant to express their own opinions too strongly, but anyone who has been to a Chinese wedding or spent a night at a bar knows the Chinese are passionate social creatures. On Spring Festival eve, glasses clink, toasts abound, and dish after dish come at never-ending Chinese banquets. It only makes sense that Chinese should let loose fireworks, their ancient invention, in an explosion of color and noise.
The first time I celebrated Spring Festival in China was last year in Shanghai. After dinner, my friend who invited me to his family’s Spring Festival eve feast took me outside and taught me how to launch fireworks the Chinese way: with a lit cigarette. I enjoyed the experience of lighting them and watching them detonate in the air as cars drove by under falling ashes.
It was something I couldn’t have easily done in America. Forget about using pyrotechnics in a crowded city, most places won’t even let you use them in the suburbs or the countryside. In the state that I grew up in, Ohio, the law allows for purchase, but not use, of most fireworks.
Fireworks in America are most associated with Independence Day, the day when we celebrate our establishment as a nation and the freedom that came with it. But in many ways, China feels more free. Here in China, we can sit on a creaky minibus, careening over the mountain roads of Yunnan while drinking a beer, then take the beer outside and drink it on the street (or at a night market). In America, so-called “Chinatown bus companies,” which offer much cheaper rides than traditional buses, are being shutdown by the government. Beer is prohibited on a traditional bus, like the MegaBus company, and it is illegal to drink on the street, not to mention illegal for anyone under age 21. In America, anything dangerous (except guns) must be regulated out of existence.
In 1990, in a Chicago Tribune article about excessive safety regulations, an insurance agent was quoted as saying, “It used to be nearly every big town had a fireworks display. Now maybe four (in the county) do.”
While some parts of the world have become more homogenous and bland, China remains, to me, a vast country of colorful culture and unique traditions. The color of fireworks in the night sky shouldn’t disappear in the country that invented them. It is these traditions that give us something to celebrate.