Every year I’ve been in China I’ve missed the lantern festival. The day marks the end of the spring festival period but after the excitement of new year, being back at work with life returned to normal it is easily overlooked in the same way that the feast of Epiphany, at the end of Christmas, is all but forgotten, overshadowed but the importance of the celebrations preceding it. This year the lantern festival fell on a Friday, my desk calendar reminded me of the date early in the morning and I was able to get advice from work colleagues and had a free evening to go out and finally celebrate and expedience the traditions.
The new year started on the new moon and this festival is 15 days later on the first full moon. Like many of Chinese traditions around the festivals there are fantastical stories about their origins and the lantern festival is no exception. A popular legend is that the god of fire planned to burn down the capital in revenge for them killing his favourite crane. He was fooled by the residents into thinking it was already on fire by them hanging red lanterns outside, lighting bonfires and letting off firecrackers. And at the same time being bought off by cooking his favourite sweet dumplings (Tangyuan). Tangyuan are rice balls in syrup . Sometimes they have a filling, such as red bean paste. They are a bit unusual for western tastes but quite nice. Most families will eat some in the evening.
I was hoping to get some paper lanterns with candles in and watch them float into the night sky like I’ve seen so many times on TV but was told these type are now banned. It makes sense, given the tinder dryness of Beijing and surrounding countryside, it would be easy to start a serious fire. Lanterns are still hung as decorations, and the street has some modern versions hanging from street lights. Because of the pollution some cities such as Beijing and Tianjin have also banned fireworks. Several years ago they would be banging and flashing away from early morning into the night in a continuous barrage like the shock and awe of the Iraq war. Its far more subdued now, but as it grows dark thoughout spring festival period its still possible to see an occasional spray of rockets, or hear a burst of firecrackers, especially in the suburbs.
A colleague told me where I could order some fireworks and sent a map of a popular local site for letting them off. We contacted the seller who, like a dodgy dealer, turned up with a selection for sale in the back of a van. We bought a long string of firecrackers and two square cubes of a larger unknown type that he recommended for about £6 in total.
After 7pm we got a taxi off to the address we were given. When we arrived, there were several groups of people hanging around and occasionally they would let off a firework in the road. The police would turn up and warn people they cant let off fireworks. There would be apologies and we would move away. Further along the road another group would set off some more and the police would hurry after them. As the evening wore on in every direction you looked you could see the flash and sparkle of fireworks and occasionally be startled with the loud report close by. It was quite strange to see so many people openly defying the police and know this was going on throughout the area. I was told every year a lot of people are injured, and I could imagine that in the chaotic way it was being done someone could easily walk or cycle into a just lit firework.
After carefully checking for police we positioned one of our boxes in the road, gingerly lit the fuse and hurriedly retreated to the safety of the pavement. The fuse was short and the box erupted into a series of mortars over my retreating back that then exploded in a shower of colours above our heads. It was the first time we’d been so close to a display and it was load enough to make some near by kids cover their ears. In the distance we could see a pair of policemen hurrying towards us and we walked away leaving the smoking evidence in the road.
When we got back to the Shiqu we notice the street opposite was busy with people, the same furtive small family groups that by now were recognisable as fellow festival goers. One boy was carrying a pair of lanterns plastic and battery powered but at least nodding towards the traditional. There were the remains of a small bonfire on the corner of the crossroads. We still had the string of fire crackers and one of the boxes of mortars left. We chose a patch of road not overhung by willows and set them off. Briefly lighting up the road and the faces of those nearby.
It was a strange evening spent alongside the few families intent on following the tradition . It reminded me of my childhood around bonfire night when we would buy bangers earned through ‘a-penny-for-the-guy’ or with pocket money and secretly let them off in the countryside. Now sales in UK are restricted to over 18s and shops selling them have to be licensed. It’s almost inevitable that Chinese law will go the same way and cause this traditional festivals decline, in the same way that UK legislation has all but ended the 5th November celebrations.