The Yanshui Fireworks Festival (鹽水蜂炮) is considered to be one of the most dangerous festivals in the world (see links at the bottom,) which isn’t a surprise considering that the entire object of the festival is to get hit by as many small explosives as possible, in the guise of being provided better luck.
Unlike most fireworks festivals, the goal of the attendees is to be hit by as many fireworks as possible. To ensure that everybody “gets some,” the locals make huge walls, between two and three meters, made of tubing and racks. The open sections of these are packed full with fireworks, as full as possible.
Burnt Powder and Milk Tea
Walking through the crowded streets of Yanshui (鹽水區) the scattered bits of artillery going off with little hint or preview, choking in the fog of brunt firework powder, sweating under my thick coveralls and inside my full-face helmet, it’s easy to lose focus on why I’m here to the general discomfort of the whole thing. I stop at a food stall and get a milk tea.
Why did I decide that I needed to get hit by fireworks for several hours on a school night, anyway?
Several of my Taiwanese friends rolled their collective eyes at the whole idea even in their own country, they saw little practicality of a festival built around getting shot at. This is an event where even locals find the whole enterprise a tad reckless and unnecessary.
God of War, God of Bottle Rockets
In the late nineteenth century, Yanshui was saddled with a Cholera epidemic which was burning through much of Asia. With little hope left, the villagers prayed to Guan Di, (關羽) the god of war. It should be mentioned that Guan Di doesn’t stick only to war, unlike Mars, his western counterpart. Guan Di also specializes in friendship and compassion, as well as a number of other things he showed expertise in during his life (hi role in the “Three Kingdoms” period of Chinese history features the most famous of his exploits.) Guan Di came to the villagers in spirit form and told them to put an idol of his sword bearer and companion Jhou Cang (周倉) on a palanquin at the front of a procession of everyone in the village, and an idol of himself at the back. They were to march the idols through the street, lighting fireworks on every street and corner along the way. The villagers did as the god instructed them, and the cholera immediately disappeared. The villagers were thankful enough to make it a yearly festival. It’s worth mentioning that around the time of this legend, Japanese imperialists and Christian Missionaries were doing much to modernize Taiwan’s medical system and health care.
Of course it sounds apocryphal, but it’s a damned fine modern legend, one that you can actually dig into pretty deeply if you consider the elements of modernization, religion, frequent invasions, imperialism and everything else going on in Taiwan at this point in history.
Tips For a Better Yanshui
When you go to Yanshui, keep your helmet on, keep your head down, and buy a cheap filter for your camera lens, because if a bottle rocket can get a direct hit, it will. Bring plenty of water, and while a military-issue jumpsuit isn’t required, it’s not a bad idea; an even better idea is a decent vinyl raincoat (readily and cheaply available throughout Taiwanese convenience stores.) Don’t skimp on the helmet; get one that fist decently and can be fully covered. And above all else, don’t forget your towel (or the duct tape to secure it to the area between your neck and helmet with.)