The Origin of Fireworks
The Chinese had long sought to make themselves immortal and they put much effort into a discovery of that elusive goal.
Taoist sages believed that human beings were earthly deities; that they could cultivate their spirit, mind and bodies by Qinong. This “inner cultivation’, they thought, could cause them to become supernatural beings that would bring about long life or ever attain eternal life.
Coupled with this pursuit was as early stage of chemistry called Alchemy. The alchemists thought that they could “refine the sand and base ore into gold and other magical medicine that would never rot.” The ‘outer refining’ techniques of these alchemists sought to find the elixir of life.
Early in the Warring States (457 BC-221 BC) the alchemists presented the longevity medicine to Emperor Jing. In the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907 AD), alchemists had the support of the imperial court and religion. However, their importance diminished in the Song Dynasty (960-1271 AD) and disappeared altogether in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD).
Through the alchemical experiments of these early scientists, many chemical and medical discoveries were made. The invention of the compass and printing ink, two of the ‘Four Great Inventions of China’, emerged during this time.
Arguably, the most important contribution of this era was the discovery of gunpowder. Since its invention, gunpowder has been widely used in fields ranging from medicine to defense to entertainment. This began its use in the production of the very first fireworks.
There are many opinions about the time of the invention of fireworks. Some think they were developed in the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907 AD), but others insist there were no fireworks until the Northern Song Dynasty (Tenth Century AD). In the Southern Song Dynasty (Twelfth Century AD) there was rapid development.
The Invention of the Firecracker
In the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC) it is said that people would roast bamboo to produce a load sound that was intended to disperse ghosts and apparitions. In the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-581 AD) this kind of sound was not only used to dispel evil but also to pray for happiness and prosperity.
At the end of the Northern Song Dynasty, the first paper tube crackers, filled with gunpowder, were produced. Crackers strung together by hemp rope, known as ‘hundred-break’ crackers, appeared at the end of the Southern Dynasty (fifth Century AD). Li Tian is credited as the originator of the cracker industry.
Li Tian, the Founder
There was an emperor named Li Shiming in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). His Prime Minister, Wei Zhou, killed an evil dragon, which then came back to haunt him. He was greatly vexed and did not know what to do. Li Tian ignited a bamboo tube that was filled with a pyrotechnic composition. The ghost was frightened by the loud bang and went away. After that, the people called Li Tian the founder of crackers and every April 18th they offer sacrifices to him.
It was said that in the Zhenguan period of the Tang Dynasty, in the east of Hunan Province there were floods and droughts every year. Li Tian went to Liu Yang and was struck by the people’s poverty. He set off fireworks to disperse the evil, after which, the people lived and worked in peace and prosperity. In the Song Dynasty (980-1271 AD) people set up a temple to worship Li Tian.
The Development of the Firecracker
At the end of the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD), beginning of the Tang (618-907 AD), the famous alchemist and medicine man Sun Si Miao refined ore in a cave near the eastern side of Liu Yang, Hunan. He developed crackers and later, fireworks. His tools and workbench have been preserved to this day.
At the end of the Northern Song and the beginning of the Southern Song dynasties, firecrackers made rapid progress along side the development of social, economic and chemical sciences. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) firecrackers were presented to the palace as articles of tribute and were greatly enjoyed by the dignitaries of the court.
The export of fireworks began with Paozhuang, a private trading company, which had a main store and several branches. In the mid-1800’s, Paozhuang began to deal in fireworks, trading by land and sea, throughout Asia and as far as Europe.
Fireworks were sold abroad in the Guangxun Period (1875-1908 AD) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). At first, fireworks were transported to Guangdong, then to Hong Kong or Macao where they were collected for sale and distribution to Southeast Asia. Some were also sold abroad from Shanghai. During the Xuantong Period (1909-1911 AD) fireworks were sold in twenty countries, including Singapore, India, Korea, Japan, Russia, the Philippines, Britain, America, Sweden, Egypt, Canada, Australia and other Latin America countries.
In the 1930’s, economic development was hampered by turbulent international politics and persisting warfare. Many firework factories went bankrupt, product range shrank and sales were poor. Over time, the firework industry declined.
After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, the fireworks industry began to recover and then entered a golden period after 1978. When the Open Door Policy came into effect in 1980, worldwide trade began to flourish.
In current years, the fireworks export industry has opened to an expanding market. At present, few countries do not import Chinese made fireworks.
Presently, there are five bases of fireworks production in China: Liuyan (Hunnan), Beihai (Guangxi), Pingxiang (Jiangxi), Jianghu (Jiangsu), and Donguan (Guangdong).
The Development of Safety for Fireworks
Throughout the development of the fireworks industry, safety standards have become increasingly important.
The Department of Consumer Product Inspection of China has issued national standards for fireworks and firecrackers, outlining requirements for both safety and quality. These safety regulations were implemented, and explosive accidents have been reduced greatly.
Most of the fireworks factories in China that are shipping fireworks to the USA are now involved in the China Fireworks Quality Improvement Program (QIP). This is part of the testing program set up by the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory (AFSL). The goals of the program are to improve the quality and safety of fireworks distributed in the United States and this will obviously affect the quality of products shipped worldwide.
The development of superior safety systems has improved fireworks quality and guarantees the future of the fireworks industry.
Fireworks and Folk Custom.
In ancient China, people believed that fire could disperse evil spirits. Sparks were a good omen, sound could frighten ghosts, and smoke could create a healthy atmosphere. Fireworks had universal appeal as they combined these three elements.
In modern China, much like their ancestors, people set off fireworks to express their happiness and to pray for peace and invite good luck during festivals. Fireworks are truly rooted in people’s consciousness and play an important role in a host of national celebrations and local festivals:
Chinese Lunar New Year – in early Spring
Lantern Festival – to mark the end of the Lunar New Year festival
China National Day – October 1st
Chinese ethnic minority festivals
Kite Festival of Weifan – annual showcase of kite art and design
Grape Festival of Turpen – in western China’s grape growing area
Beer Festival of Qingdao – the ‘famous’ Qingdao Beer Co. of the port city of Qingdao
Other occasions there fireworks are often used:
Honoring of guests
Fireworks and Literature
China has been called the kingdom of the Poet. A great number of poems have been composed about fireworks and firecrackers. The most loved have been recited and enjoyed by generations.
Below are a few translated examples. Though translation often renders the poem less that enjoyable, you can appreciate the significance that fireworks hold to the writer.
A poem to describe the effects of fireworks:
A poem describing the role of fireworks in the New Year festival:
“The breaks of fireworks say goodbye to the last year,
Spring wind has brought warmth to Suzhou City”
A figurative poem of a fireworks devotion:
“Just for the applaud of common people
They tear themselves into pieces
Let their lives
Come down in multiple colours.”
Foreign literature also celebrates the color and pageantry of fireworks. Examples include:
American poet Fima’s ‘Flower, Smoke’
Philippine poet Heguan’s ‘Firework’
Chinese children grow up with folk stories about fireworks.
An example of one of these is an ancient story about crackers.
A three-meter tall one-footed monster causes the people he meets to fall sick. He is not afraid of anyone, but when the people roast bamboo with the purpose of producing a load bang, the monster is scared and runs away.
Events in Chinese Fireworks History
Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC): In 211 BC, during building the great wall of Chins, signal tow3ers were designed at strategic points to warn the army behind the wall of any intrusion by the enemy forces. Smoke signals were used during the day and bonfires at night. It is believed that saltpeter (potassium nitrate), the main ingredient in black gunpowder, was added to the firewood.
Dong Han Dynasty (206B.C. – 220AD): People roasted bamboo to produce a loud sound that was intended to scare away evil spirits.
Sui Dynasty (581A.D. – 618A.D): A story was told that in 616 AD, during the Sui Dynasty, a flare signal, summoning reserve troops to military service was set off was found to entertain the morose wife of the emperor Yang-Ti. When the soldiers gathered, all with a sullen look on their face, the sight was so amusing that it made her laugh. Some historians believe this to be the first instance of flares being used as fireworks.
Sui and Tang Dynasties (581A.D. – 907A.D): China witnessed the invention of gunpowder, a mixture of Potassium Nitrate, sulfur and charcoal. This was found during the search for a medicine to prolong life.
In the year of 904 AD, Zheng Fan attacked YuZhang . Gunpowder was first used in the Military.