The barrage started on a Friday morning a few distant booms that soon led to louder explosions and fizzling sounds drawing nearer to my apartment. As the day progressed, so too did the frequency of the sounds, until night fell and a display of bright colors and lights were added to the fray. Fireworks. It was Spring Festival in Beijing.
Spring Festival, also called Chinese Lunar New Year, is roughly the equivalent of America's Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July and any other major federally recognized holiday combined. And I make this comparison not just on the festival's features compared to Western celebrations gift giving, dressing up in traditional garb, eating large meals with family members and an almost unnecessary amount of fireworks but on its length. The festival, from beginning to end, lasts two weeks.
The festival is a time to spend with family, with many Chinese traveling great distances from city to rural countryside to visit relatives they may not see throughout the year.
I decided to stay put in Beijing, since travel would be all but impossible due to a lack of availability and jacked up holiday prices. It was also my first Chinese New Year, and I wanted to be sure to enjoy the festivities in China's capital.
A few friends who'd experienced the festival over the years already decided to avoid the "mayhem," as they described Spring Festival, and were well on their way to foreign destinations (Europe and South America) before the first fireworks went off. They told me Beijing and the surrounding countryside would become a "war zone" with non-stop booms, bangs and rocket fire.
To an extent, they were right.
While the screech of rockets and cracking of firecrackers were continuous throughout the week, the major firework display came on New Year's Eve. I decided to go to my favorite summer hangout Hou Hai, an open lake area surrounded by bars and restaurants. By the time I arrived, the show had begun.
All around, fuses were being lit and people were running for cover, as rockets took skyward to burst into beautiful displays of red and white light. The absence of tall buildings allowed me to see fireworks flowering across the Beijing skyline. A few fireworks misfired, launching their payloads in my direction, causing temporary deafness. But it was worth it. It wasn't until people on the opposite side of the lake started firing rockets at people on my side of the lake that I decided to take cover behind a few trees.
I've been to a number of Fourth of July fireworks shows, but the variety and volume of celebratory explosions was unlike anything I'd seen before. I later read that the fireworks display across Beijing, and China for that matter, is the largest uncoordinated fireworks event in the world.
As smoke and the smell of gunpowder filled the air, I made my way home, walking the roughly mile and half to my apartment under a fireworks-filled sky. Things didn't calm down until 5 a.m. Three hours later, the familiar sound of firecrackers could still be heard.
Aside from fireworks, miao hui, or temple festivals, are common during the two-week celebration. The festivals are similar to carnivals or fairs in America, complete with carnie-style foods-on-a-stick, entertainment and loud music, rides for kids and games where you can win large stuffed animals. Think Knoebel's Grove with 10 times the occupancy and games you can never win.
A festival worker dressed as Bugs Bunny was also there, something I found particularly odd since the new Chinese year is the year of the tiger. It seemed Tigger or even Tony the Tiger would have been more appropriate, despite their Western origins.
It wasn't until Monday evening that the fireworks began to calm down. But as close to overkill as the racket of rockets and smaller firecrackers became after a week, the celebration was well deserved.
With over 5,000 years of history and a plethora of inventions crucial to human civilization paper, the compass, printing and gunpowder (ergo their obsession with fireworks perhaps) the Chinese have a lot to celebrate. And despite almost being hit with multiple fireworks and losing my hearing, if only temporarily, I was glad to celebrate with them.
(Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.