Victims of Chinese Festivities – Year of the Dragon

Beijing Fireworks

As the Year of the Dragon commences, the unusual tradition of lighting fireworks in every possible location in mainland China is under review. Anastasia Novobranova takes notice to the origin of this habit and examines why no one has forbidden firing rockets that can damage buildings, injure children and even kill city dwellers

Russians have a really interesting tradition: While celebrating the first days of spring, they burn a straw man; an act symbolizing the end of winter. Recent events in China indicate that the Chinese people have decided to adopt this tradition and to modernize it further – instead of burning a straw man, they celebrate by burning… a hotel!

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Beijing, February 2009. Being especially excited on the last day of the Chinese New Year (春节- chunjie, also known as Spring Festival), several CCTV (Central Chinese Television) representatives organized a massive fireworks display. No expenses were held back to finance this occasion: The best pyrotechnics were bought and set to be launched close to the CCTV Tower (also known as the «Big Underpants» of Beijing). The 159-meter building was expected to be opened by May of 2009 and to include many TV recording and production studios, as well as a 241-room 5-star hotel which would be part of the brand of Mandarin Oriental.

Unfortunately, the opening never took place. Merely minutes after the amazing fireworks had been launched into the air, the building turned into a torch! The fireworks completely burned down the building. Extinguishing the fire took more than 6 hours and occupied more than 600 firefighters for hours. It resulted in 7 wounded firefighters and 1 person dead, roughly estimated direct losses of 163.83 mln. RMB (US$24 mln) and a tall black charred building, which might still come crashing down at any time, right in the center of the capital city of China.

History, however, is recurrent. And so is Spring Festival. In 2011 we again witnessed the blaze of a 5-star hotel, this time the role of the straw man was given to the Huang Chao Wanxin Hotel, located in the city of Shenyang (Liaoning province). This hotel is a part of the Dynasty Wanxin Compound, which comprises of 3 towers, rising to 219 meters each. According to local media, two of the towers were almost destroyed by the fire. And of course, the cause of the fire, you guessed it: fireworks! Unfortunately, no detailed information was released, but rumor has it that the creators of the fire were in fact guests of the hotel, who ignited fireworks in the hotel itself. It was reported that a residential building close to the hotel was also destroyed by the fire. Luckily, no deaths or injuries that year. Financial losses were high yet have not been published since the incident.

It is worth mentioning that the 2010 Spring Festival was not without architectual losses as well. On February 18, 2010, the fireworks in Zhengding city (Hebei province) resulted in a huge fire that left little of the South City Gate. The gate was a great historical monument, built approximately 1600 years ago. Its complete reconstruction was carried out in 2011 and cost some 4 mln RMB. Luckily, no injuries or deaths in this incident as well. Nonetheless, a historical relic that was prominent for more than one thousand years was gone in a couple of hours.

And so the habit goes on and on – fires, injuries, wounds and even deaths. As local newspapers report, during the last 5 days of this year’s ‘Chunjie’, there have been more than 30 fires in Hangzhou alone; more than 200 people have been injured in Beijing, and two men died. One might ask, when the losses are so apparent and massive, why nothing has been done to change this dangerous habit?

Well, to answer this question one needs to investigate the well-established Chinese tradition, which is much stronger than the fear of any injury or even death. The belief in the existence of evil spirits has been quite persistent since ancient times in China. Chinese people believe that ill spirits choose to stay close to their homes during the New Year period, and thus it is necessary to drive them away by inducing loud noise. This is why many people ignite powder explosives right at the doorstep of their homes. Noise is the main element of the holiday, and during the 15-day Spring Festival, it is incessant, even during late-night and mid-day hours.

In Chinese culture, superstitions are many: Chinese people widely believe that the more fireworks one fires, the richer he/she will become in the following year. Yet another superstition claims that a serious accident occurred during Spring Festival is a bad omen. The 2009 fire in Beijing created expectations among locals that disasters will come in the following year. Not surprisingly, disasters did occur, and these were mostly natural ones: severe droughts, wind-hails, freezing weather, and floods. Such is the paradox in China: by trying to push away evil and misfortune, people create them for themselves.

The year of 2012 has a special meaning in China – it is the Year of Dragon. According to the Chinese zodiac, the dragon is a purely fabulous creature. It is associated with power, wealth and wisdom. Back in ancient times, Dragon, the king of animals in Chinese mythology, was the symbol of the influential power of emperors. Believing in the supernatural abilities of the dragon, young Chinese people strive to produce an offspring. During ‘Dragon’ years, there is usually a demographic boost – there was a 5-% increase in reproduction rate in 2000, and there is one expected this year as well. Obviously, the powerful year of the dragon should be properly welcomed with massive fireworks – as the culture dictates. Although officially banned within the 5th ring road of Beijing, Beijingers started hearing explosions as early as the 17th of January (Chinese New Year Festival begins on 23d of January), most of which are dangerously close to living areas and office buildings. No doubt that arises fear that your home might fall and become one of China’s ‘victims of festivities’.