Tag Archives: Chinese folk traditions

Firecrackers 爆竹 bàozhú

illustration from Ming Dyn (1628 to 1643 edition of Jin Ping Mei) copy jpg characers for baozhu  bamboo in jpg 2 copy     bàozhú   firecracker

An illustration of a fireworks display from the 1628–1643 edition of the Ming Dynasty novel Jin Ping Mei

爆竹        bàozhú, baoh-zhru        firecracker [or literally exploding bamboo]

The history of marvelous Chinese inventions is fascinating. The invention of firecrackers is an example.

The word for firecracker in Chinese is bàozhú (exploding bamboo) and is derived from the original firecrackers used in ancient China, perhaps as far back as the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC). At that time, pieces of green bamboo were thrown into a fire and then the bamboo would burst apart with loud bangs. In other words, these original firecrackers were not the same as those developed later, no gunpowder was included.

Li Tian, a monk living near Liu Yang city, Hunan province, is credited with having invented the modern firecracker. According to mythology, Li Tian filled a piece of bamboo with gunpowder to frighten away a persistent ghost that had been bothering the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) emperor Li Shi-ming. The loud bang did the job. The ghost fled and the emperor once again had peace. In honor of this great invention (pyrotechnic fireworks), Chinese traditionally held a festival in Li Tian’s honor on April 18th.

By the end of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 AD), firecrackers consisted of paper tubes stuffed with gunpowder. The tubes were tied together with rope, forming a long string of firecrackers, which could be set off in succession. This produced quite a display of noise and smoke.

Noise and smoke, both are considered important for protecting a household. Noise chases away ghosts and other evils, such as poisonous insects (see my January 5, 2014 blog on the 5 noxious animals also sometimes called the five evils) and sickness. Smoke cleanses the house and also gets rid of poisonous insects and dampness, which can cause illness. Therefore, for a couple of thousand years firecrackers have been synonymous with health and peace, which leads to a prosperous future for the family.

Sources for fireworks: Joseph Needham Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West 1970 p. 89-90; http://kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com/en/10Kaleidoscope8486.html; www.kracklinkirks.com/fireworks%20history.htm;

Illustration: “Ming Dynasty Jin Ping Mei fireworks” by Unknown – Jin Ping Mei, from Science and Civilisation in China p. 140. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ming_Dynasty_Jin_Ping_Mei_fireworks.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ming_Dynasty_Jin_Ping_Mei_fireworks.jpg.

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The homophone hú: fox 狐 hú, hur and non-Han people 胡 hú, hur

The homophone hú:  fox   hú, hur  and non-Han people hú, hur

I’ve been reading about traditional folk beliefs in pre-modern China and recently acquired Leo Tak-hung Chang’s wonderful and informative book The Discourse on Foxes and Ghosts, Ji Yun and Eighteenth-Century Literati Storytelling.  In it he gives an interesting example of how homophones offered people an opportunity to express their aggravation with the government, while appearing to speak of something else. Continue reading

Happy New Year! Gong Hei Fat Choi!

 This greeting is in Cantonese, not Mandarin, because that’s what you’re most likely to hear in the US.

picture by Lyndon Barnett

picture by Lyndon Barnett

Can you believe we are already one week into the Chinese and Vietnamese New Year?  Traditionally, New Year celebrations went on for a couple of weeks, although today that time has often been limited to as little as one week.

While the Chinese and Vietnamese have many differences in their cultures, they both share a lot of similarities for this major holiday, which the Vietnamese call Tet.

Vietnamese Tet

Vietnamese Tet .   Image from wikipedia

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What are Joss sticks?

Joss sticks are long, narrow sticks of incense, which are either held in two hands while praying or placed in a sand filled container and burned in various personal, family, and public religious rituals.

First, just to clarify, the word joss isn’t Chinese.  It comes from the Portuguese word for god, deus.  Nevertheless, joss is now the standard term used and if you wanted to buy some in a local Chinese grocery, for example, it’s what you’d look for.

The Chinese have been using incense to assist in communicating with the supernatural as far back as 2,000 BC!  Apparently, early Chinese used aromatic herbs and other plants, such as sandalwood, to burn.  However, although these are called incense, today it is common today to use a non-fragrant material in the joss sticks which are used for prayer purposes.  It’s not the fragrance that’s important in the ritual so much as the smoke given off by the joss sticks as they burn.  The smoke rises upwards, carrying the prayers to the gods or ancestors.  There are fragrant incense sticks and these can also be used for praying.

Joss Sticks (1) in China on July 22 2009Joss Sticks

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