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Never change a winning team: almost two millennia ago, the penetrating effect of Siao si (saltpeter), Mu tan (charcoal) and Lin huang (sulphur) was already putting one or the other foe of the Chinese to flight. Admittedly, several centuries were to pass before this successful Chinese technology was to reach Europe. Here too, its success proved unstoppable and gunpowder was soon utterly indispensable on the battlefield. Professional artificers ensured that it had maximum effect. They did so not just in war, but also during grand firework displays on festive occasions. Gunpowder is at once a blessing and a curse – all over the world.
Like numerous other nations, the Chinese long ago made pyrotechnics (pyros, Greek for fire) a form of art. Fireworks are literally part of the highlights of great celebrations. The most important of these is the spring festival at the beginning of each New Year. The Chinese New Year is based on Emperor Han Wu’s calendar and accordingly occurs, not like everywhere else in the world on January 1st, but at the second new moon after the winter solstice, or between January 21st and February 21st. Every Chinese is entitled then to three public holidays. Yet many Chinese find it worthwhile to take a few extra days off for the spring festival that is a great big family event. Traditionally the celebrations last for 15 days – with gorgeously colorful dragon and lion dances and a lantern festival as the finale. Naturally the occasion also calls for crackers, rockets and fireworks that can continue going off for hours. That all this needs to be frighteningly loud and dazzling brilliant is just part of Chinese legend: Nian, a horrifying mythical creature, used to roam the country, laying waste cities and country estates and regularly ruining their New Year’s celebrations for the Chinese. Then the Chinese set about defending themselves – with three things that terrified Nian, namely the color red, noise and fire.
When the year 4706, the Year of the Rat, begins in China punctually at 23.00 on February 7th 2008, Nian will most certainly be missing. Instead, one needs to be prepared for a mass of red and gold as bringers of luck, thrilling skyscapes and some spectacular sequences of bangs. Magnesium and aluminum will create streaming white lights, and alkali metals the most fantastic colors, in the night sky, while good old gunpowder is the inflammable substance and creates an almighty background din. Gunpowder is a blessing and a curse. Without it, Chinese culture – and hence quite possibly the entire world – would be the poorer by not just quite a few battles, but many thrilling nocturnal spectacles of this kind.
As a tip for all those who adore fireworks but will not manage to visit the next Chinese spring festival, the third Pyronale is coming up in Berlin in September 2008. For two evenings, the world’s best firework companies and pyrotechnicians will be presenting a preselected plus a free programme. In 2007 Sweden was declared the winner, followed by Lithuania and Italy.
The next Pyronale will be staged on Friday and Saturday, September 5th-6th 2008 on the Maifeld by the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. For further details and tickets: http://www.pyronale.biz/