News and Travel Editor
November is a pretty big month for fireworks around the world.
Not only is Thanksgiving Day celebrated on the 24th of November in the US, the 5th of November marks Bonfire Night in the UK. For the British, fireworks represent the explosives that were never used in Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Lots of people know that fireworks and gunpowder were discovered in China, but did you know about some of the fun and more unusual legends surrounding their discovery?
It is generally accepted that gunpowder, and later fireworks, were discovered by Chinese alchemists from the Han dynasty, who were hoping to discover an elixir for immortality. As you may have already guessed, this elixir was never discovered. However, these alchemists did happen to combine a seemingly random collection of chemicals: potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulphur and later charcoal. Little did they know this happened to be the recipe for the perfect firework… Potassium nitrate is the stuff that creates the loud bang, whilst the sulphur makes the firework spray out of its container and smell delightfully of rotten eggs.
On that note, you can probably guess how much smoke and pollution is produced from fireworks. It’s because of this that certain cities in China, including Nanjing and Hangzhou, have taken the decision to ban fireworks in urban areas.
It wasn’t until the 13th century when Marco Polo was credited with bringing the Chinese invention back to Europe, although some European Crusaders also claim to have brought the concoction back home after their travels.
The recipe has of course developed from the 13th Century. Not only did gunpowder start to become used for rockets and weapons, but fireworks became increasingly popular during celebrations, religious ceremonies and to commemorate military victories. We started to add more and more ingredients to create different effects and colours, such as copper for blue and barium for green.
Other legends also suggest that fireworks were discovered somewhat by mistake. One traditional Chinese legend claims that a cook accidentally poured saltpeter on to a fire, creating interesting flames and colours.
Another story from the Tang dynasty credits a Chinese monk, Li Tian, with the discovery of firecrackers. It is said that Li Tian fought off the lingering spirit of an evil dragon by shooting explosives out of a bamboo shoot. The dragon’s spirit was scared away by the loud bangs.
In a similar story, the province of Hunan was consistently plagued by an evil spirit, who deliberately caused droughts and floods. That was until Li Tian (this guy again?!) set off fireworks to scare the spirit away. Every year on the 18th of April, some Chinese honour the efforts of the ‘Founder of Crackers’ by offering sacrifices.
Next time you’re gazing up at the night’s sky and watching a spectacular fireworks display, remember you’re watching an invention created over 2000 years ago! Today, most of the world’s fireworks are still created in China, in a town called Liuyang, Hunan Province.
Check out a timelapse from China Icons when we were lucky enough to witness Chinese New Year fireworks.