LIGHT IT UP
Revellers across Taiwan ring in the lunar new year with festivals of lanterns and fireworks. It’s a time to secure blessings and good luck — and sometimes for being struck by flying rockets.
AS THE FEBRUARY DUSK FALLS on Tainan, the streets of Yanshuei District fill with people. Dressed as if for a day of winter sports in heavy jackets, gloves and scarves, their faces masked by motorcycle helmets with visors pulled down, they cluster around elaborate palanquins containing statues of a seated warrior and draped with strings of firecrackers. A blast of flame from a blowtorch, and one of the litters explodes, sending rockets screaming into the air and the crowds. But instead of rushing away from the erupting palanquin, the spectators raise their armoured heads and hands to the shower of sparks. For this is no ordinary fireworks display: this is the Yanshuei “Beehive” Fireworks festival, where to bathe in falling embers is thought to ensure good luck and good health in the new year — and to be hit by a rocket is the best luck of all. Legend has it that in the late 19th century, Yanshuei was gripped by a cholera epidemic. With the death toll mounting daily (and without the benefit of our modern understanding of the importance of sanitation in controlling the disease), the terrified locals invoked the deity Guan Di, an ancient general believed to have the power to exorcise demons. At the lunar new year, they paraded through the city with palanquins bearing the likeness of Guan Di, igniting firecrackers on the roadside to light his way. The epidemic eased soon afterward, and the citizens of Yanshuei have ever since welcomed each new year with an ear-splitting display of firepower pleasing to the warlike Guan Di. Today, this literal baptism of fire is one of the largest folk celebrations in the world, attracting spectators from across Taiwan and beyond who come to rush the beehive palanquins — so-called because of the buzzing sound of the thousands of rockets going off at once. It coincides with the Taiwan Lantern Festival, a countrywide new year celebration held annually on the 15th day of the first lunar month, usually falling in late February. Here, the focal point is the release of paper lanterns, which — even minus the pyrotechnics — carry the wishes of the people up to the deities.
Clockwise from left:: Lanterns light up a Taipei street during the Taiwan Lantern Festival; firecrackers draped over a palanquin explode at the Yanshuei Fireworks Festival in Tainan; festivalgoers in Tainan wear motorcycle helmets to protect themselves...