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Firecrackers are called phow chook in Chinese meaning "bamboo explosions". In ancient China, bamboo stems were burnt to create small explosions in order to drive away evil spirits. In later times, the lighting of firecrackers signalled a joyous occasion and became an integral aspect of the Chinese New Year Eve's celebrations.
Gunpowder was invented in China some time during the Tang Dynasty (A. D. 618 - 905) and early records of firecrackers describe them as gunpowder or explosive chemicals like sulphur wrapped in paper and lighted by a paper fuse. The provinces of Hunan and Guangdong were famed for their advanced production of firecrackers. By the Sung dynasty, fireworks had been invented but its use was never as prolific as that of the firecrackers.
The universe was believed to have good forces of energy (shen or "benevolent spirits") and bad forces of energy (kuei or "malevolent spirits"). Creating a din, especially by using firecrackers was believed to dispel the malignant spirits.
Shan Sao (740 B.C.and 330 B.C.)
There once was a foul-smelling giant, named Shan Sao, who lived in the deep forests of the Western side of a village. He caused the villagers to be afflicted with diseases, accompanied by feelings of hot and cold. The people of the village decided to scare the giant away by creating a din. They constructed a heap of bamboo stems and set it alight. Bamboo burns in a series of explosions. This caused the monster to be frightened and he scooted off never to be seen in the area again.
Chinese New Year
The use of firecrackers on the eve of Chinese New Year is connected to a certain Li Tien. He had a neighbour named Chung Sou who frequently fell ill. He was believed to have been possessed by malignant spirits of the hills. Li Tien suggested detonating bamboo stems suspended from dozens of poles. So on New Year's eve, these stems were burnt, the scorching causing the bamboo stems to explode with a loud noise, scaring away the evils spirits. Thenceforth the creation of a din by burning bamboo stems or the beating of drums became a ritual observed every Chinese New Year's Eve and seeped into other Chinese festivals.
Rituals using firecrackers
As its purpose was originally to drive evil spirits away, it was also used in funerals. However, over time, the use of firecrackers evolved to take on a more positive connotation. Thus they came to be used to commemorate joyous events such as wedding processions and rituals during festivals and auspicious occasions.
It was believed that while a newly departed soul sought to go to the Western Paradise, stray ghost would come by and hinder the departed soul. Taoists priest would chant liturgies to guide the spirit and firecrackers were in turn ignited to dispel these ghosts.
Similarly during the Qing Ming festival or "All Soul's Day", firecrackers are let off to chase away the hungry spirits that may lurk around to eat the food offered to ancestors.
Theatrical and Pugilistic exhibition
Fire crackers are also let off at theatrical and pugilistic exhibitions particularly where there is the use of fast moving sword and spear duels. This is done to avoid accidents because it was believed accidents were caused by lurking mischievous spirits.
Chinese deem the incessant firing of crackers as man t'ang hung meaning a "sign of prosperity". Often on Chinese New Year's eve, in the wish for a prosperous year, the firing of crackers is so extensive that the floor is carpeted with the red debris of broken wrappers of the cracker. It is also for this reason that crackers were lighted by a well-known personality to inaugurate the official opening of a well-known building
If a Chinese is, for example, assaulted by a fellow man, and the matter settled out of court, the aggrieved could demand a gift of firecrackers. This signified an apology to the Chinese. The more crackers, the better. They often come accompanied with a pair of red candles and a set of golden flowers with red silk threads .
Types of Firecrackers
There are two main types of firecrackers used by the Chinese abroad and in China. The single packet type had a shorter detonation duration and was known as i pen wan li meaning that its purchaser would gain 10,000 times over. The second type of firecracker is a streamer known as p'ao wang pien which means "explosive whip announces prosperity". It was usually hung from the top of a building and ignited from below creating a spectacular effect of moving blasts as the streamer lighted up.
Firecrackers in Singapore
Firecrackers proved so popular it was lit during the festivities of other races and religions including Christmas Eve, Deepavali and Hari Raya. Firecrackers, however, was banned in Singapore in March 1972 after two unarmed policemen were attacked on New Year's Eve as they attempted to prevent celebrants at Upper Serangoon Road from letting off firecrackers without a permit. The permit system, a precursor to the Dangerous Fireworks Act, had been set up after Chinese New Year celebrations in 1970 caused 6 deaths, 68 injured victims and at least S$400,000 damages. A maximum of S$5,000 or/and imprisonment of up to two years can be imposed for the possession or discharge of fireworks under the "Dangerous Fireworks Act" Chapter 72, Section 3. Today the only sign of firecrackers during Chinese New Year are as long streamers of dummy crackers serving as doorway decorations.
Chinese Heritage (p. 146). (1990). Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations.
(Call no.: SING 305.895105957 CHI)
Lai, K. F. (1984). The Hennessy book of Chinese festivals (pp. 12-13). Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Asia.
(Call no.: q394.2 LAI)
Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese Festivals (p. 16). Singapore: Federal Publications.
(Call no.: Y SING 394.26951 TAN)
Wong, C. S. (1987). An Illustrated Cycle of Chinese Festivities in Malaysia and Singapore (pp.109-115). Singapore: Jack-Chia MPH.
(Call no.: SING 398.33 WON)
Police warn diehards against New Year fireworks. (1985 February, 11) The Straits Times.
The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.