As China marked the start of the Lunar New Year last week, much of the country shimmered under a fury of fireworks with an uncountable number of lights exploding over rural brick-sided greenhouses and urban glass-sided apartment towers.
But in the southern city of Nanjing, all was quiet. A Jan. 1 law banned all fireworks at all times, removing a previous exception that allowed them over the Lunar New Year. The new rule imposed fines up to $10,000 on companies that offend and was enforced by police making tens of thousands of checks.
Nanjing, a former capital city of 8.1 million, is at the forefront of a new Chinese campaign against roman candles and sparklers, one that has bankrupted fireworks companies and prompted those still standing to roll out a wave of new incendiaries they describe as "green."
China's love of fireworks is at least a millennium old. But authorities have been stamping out exploding fun in the name of cleaner air. It's not the first time bad air and culture have clashed. China's air is routinely thick with smog from huge numbers of coal-fired power plants and factories, prompting questions about the effectiveness of limiting fireworks. Similar questions were raised two years ago, when Beijing attempted to address its smog problem by banning street-side barbecue vendors, long a fixture of the city's culinary scene, for causing too much smoke.
More than 130 cities now ban fireworks entirely, with another 530 imposing limits. This year, state media greeted the Lunar New Year with depressing data that will undoubtedly propel further restrictions. In Beijing on Feb. 18 – New Year's Eve and traditionally the loudest night of the year – the concentration of PM2.5 particulate pollutants exploded in tandem with the aerial shows. From a reading of 34 at 7 p.m., it climbed to 413 by 1 a.m., a level that is visibly toxic, and hazardous to health. By 2 a.m., half the Chinese cities that measure it saw heavy air pollution.
In Nanjing, meanwhile, environmental officials reported the cleanest New Year's Eve in a decade. Beijing measures fireworks by the tonnes of debris they rain down. This year, the city has seen a 33-per-cent decrease.
It's all been decidedly bad news for the companies that have made China the world's fireworks factory.
Manufacturers have responded with a scramble to less-polluting fireworks, in hopes authorities can be convinced to hold off on bans. At Panda Fireworks, a major manufacturer that made products to light up the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008, boxes of flying spinners and aerial shells are labelled "environmentally friendly." Some are marketed as "APEC"-calibre, reference to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that China hosted last fall, when authorities cleaned up the air by shutting down factories.
Tao Liang, a marketing manager at Panda, said he could not provide any data on how much cleaner his "green" fireworks are. But 70 per cent of what the company sells are labelled "green."
"We have no choice. We have to be in line with the changes in the broader environment, and we have to change with it," Mr. Tao said. The wall at a Panda store in Beijing is adorned with a sign: "Reform the traditional produced fireworks, rejuvenate the traditional culture."
That's not to say there isn't new technology. Recent years have brought sulphur-free fireworks, but those don't do much to combat smoke. They simply cut out sulphur dioxide, a gas that can help form air pollution. It's not been a problem-free development, however. "The performance of this non-sulphur technology is not as stable as traditional powder [and affects] the reliability of the launch heights that can be achieved," said Yang Jiming, the dean of the fireworks and firecracker engineering department at the Hunan Vocational Institute of Safety Technology.
He said he can't quite understand the marketing of clean "APEC" fireworks. "For a massive fireworks performance like APEC, the smoke was actually still quite strong," Prof. Yang said. "In the future, we will focus on further reducing smoke."
China is often credited as inventor of both fireworks and gunpowder, although historians aren't certain. India was also a early pioneer of the necessary chemistry, as were the Greeks, who used some of the same basic ingredients to concoct "Greek Fire," a burning mixture sprayed at enemies to devastating effect in the seventh century.
There is no doubt that China was among the earliest enthusiasts of celebratory fireworks, making exploding rockets called "Flying Fire" as early as the 11th century and using the crash of light and sound to ward off evil spirits. From there, fireworks and firecrackers became an essential part of rituals, used at weddings and births. They also had military uses: Chinese historical documents describe a siege in 1232 in which exploding iron pots were used to wreak destructive fire, and a "thunder which shakes heaven."
The modern flower-like firework was perfected in Japan and Europe.
China's embrace of fireworks in the modern era reflects its manufacturing prowess. A single southern Chinese city, Liuyang, today makes more fireworks than anywhere else on earth. The Chinese industry's annual revenues are about $12-billion, 10 times higher than those of the U.S. fireworks industry.
The move to limit or ban fireworks has drawn criticism on Chinese social-media sites. "The pollution we see isn't caused by lighting fireworks. It's caused by ignoring long-term environmental problems," wrote one online commentator. China continues to burn coal for nearly 75 per cent of its electricity, a practice that has been blamed for some 670,000 deaths a year. Others complained that "no fireworks means no New Year's feeling."
Even the country's Legal Daily newspaper recently called the urge to set off fireworks "a cultural memory carried in our genes. It will not likely be replaced in a short time." It said efforts to limit them should be gentle, to ensure pangs for the past achieve a "soft landing."
At Panda, Mr. Tao said manufacturers of fireworks, such as his "green" label "prosperous age peony" fireworks, can't quite figure out how they have become a target of environmentally minded governments. "I heard that a 30-minute fireworks show emits as much pollution as a single small car," he said. "Besides, normal people don't care about these matters. All they care about is price."
With a report from Yu Mei