A Pyrotechnic Festival In China
This evening we’ve had a good dusting of fine, powdery snow here in Beijing. Considering how quickly the weather has been warming up, I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be the city’s last taste of winter wonderland until November. Today was also the Lantern Festival, Shàngyuánjié, which is celebrated on the 15th day of the lunar new year.
The day is the occasion for some tradition, which I know practically nothing about, of solving riddles written on paper lanterns. People also eat balls of sweet glutinous rice, locally called yuán xiāo; they happened to be giving them out for free at a pub where I stopped in for a drink with my good friend and colleague Dave Hone, so I got to try this bit of specialised cuisine for the first time. To my Western palate yuán xiāo were acceptable, but no more than that.
The most obvious aspect of the Lantern Festival, at least to a foreigner, is that it marks the end of the annual spring festival period that begins 15 days earlier on Chinese New Year. Celebratory fireworks can be heard and seen all through the festival period, but the Lantern Festival marks the grand finale. The first one I witnessed, in 2008, was like an unusually colourful (and harmless) artillery barrage that lasted all evening. There seemed to be fireworks going off on every street, the air was full of smoke and the scent of gunpowder, and some of the blasts were loud enough to set off car alarms and rattle my teeth as I walked by. This year the festivities, although still satisfyingly pyrotechnic, were a little more restrained. I suspect the government is taking steps to limit the power of the fireworks that can be sold, in an effort to reduce the number of unfortunate accidents.
Dave and I had no intention of standing aloof from the fine Chinese tradition of observing the holiday season with a few explosions, but we found it more expedient to acquire and detonate our fireworks last night instead of joining in the climactic spectacle of the Lantern Festival. At this time of year temporary little firework shops appear all over the city, and we had no trouble acquiring a few choice combustibles. The shopkeeper tallied up our purchases on a wooden abacus, which is something of a rarity in modern Beijing, and we went off to a little park just down the street from the research institute where we both work.
The giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, seemingly manages to invade almost every aspect of China’s cultural life, so it’s no surprise that we ended up with a few small fireworks in the form of spinning, blazing pandas that eventually popped up like jack-in-the-boxes on long shafts. By the time we had set a few of these off along with a couple of conventional Roman candles, three Chinese bystanders had drifted over to witness the proceedings.
The climax, however, was a giant conical thing almost like a combustible traffic pylon. I offered my lighter to the nearest of the bystanders, in case he felt like joining in the fun, but with admirable resourcefulness he simply kindled the thing with the end of his cigarette. The erupting pyramid turned out to be spectacular, and left behind a satisfying patch of debris when it finally went flying and extinguished itself. However, Dave and I felt a little outgunned by the loud blasts that were simultaneously coming from the alleyway behind the park, accompanied by the shriek of a car alarm.
Eating yuán xiāo and lighting a few fireworks alongside local people during the spring festival period was fun, and produced an agreeable sense of cultural participation. At the same time, however, I was well aware that I was barely scratching the surface of how Chinese people experience their greatest annual celebration. Yuán xiāo and fireworks come with a matrix of stories and symbolic and historical associations – a whole traditional context – that I know next to nothing about. One problem with our Canadian approach to multiculturalism is that it can trivialise other cultures, reducing them in the popular imagination to a few characteristic dishes, costumes and art forms. I do think that wandering Canadians should enthusiastically light spring festival fireworks in China and cheer on the matadors in Spain, and perhaps go to a sushi restaurant and attend a yoga class when they return to Calgary or Halifax. However, it’s also worth remembering that these relatively well-known aspects of foreign cultures are like tips of icebergs: high-profile manifestations of world-views and ways of being that require serious time and effort for an outsider to understand.