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Don't take heart out of world's greatest festival

By Todd Balazovic | China Daily | Updated: 2011-02-17 08:20

The recent call to ban pyrotechnics during the Spring Festival break would be taking the fire out of an annual tradition that dates back centuries.

Why curb the very thing that makes the lunar new year in Beijing and across China arguably the world's biggest, best and boldest holiday?

Year after year during the Spring Festival celebrations, newspapers and blogs are bloated with excited tales of the capital's chaotic festivities. It's great publicity for a city that strives to establish itself in the global spotlight.

Although there's the yearly huff and puff by light sleepers about the noise, the grief is all but forgotten shortly after Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the two-week period when fireworks can be used and this year falls on Feb 17.

The real crux of the argument in favor of banning fireworks is the injuries that occur each year. While my sympathies go to those unlucky enough to be hurt, it's important to remember at times that it's necessary to ignore self-preservation in the name of culture.

It's something that happens all over the world.

In Pamploma, Spain, there's the running of the bulls - a seven-day event that consists of releasing a wave of extremely angry bulls into a crowd of brave but crazy participants each morning. The event attracts thousands of spectators from every corner of the globe. Yet, the festival is dangerous, and as hundreds of participants scurry away from a tide of raging bovines, scores are injured and, on rare occasions, killed.

The Onbashira Matsuri Festival in Suwa, Japan, is another cultural celebration rife with injury. As many as 2 million people show up in a small town in Japan every six years to watch as hundreds of people roll massive tree trunks down a hill in a tradition that began as a way to rebuild an old temple. Deaths during this strange race are considered morbidly common.

Now more for show, fireworks have been used for centuries in China to ward off evil spirits. Banning fireworks all together or limiting their use detracts from their cultural roots. In addition to being boring, I've never seen a sparkler spook anything bigger than a cat.

That's not an encouragement to ignore the dangers of fireworks, they should rightly be approached with due caution, but even a few minimal restrictions on their use could have a huge impact on reducing the damage done. That's the approach Beijing authorities seem to be taking over an all-out ban.

Last Friday, officials restricted the lighting of fireworks within 60 meters of more than 11,000 high-rises throughout the capital during Lantern Festival, including residential buildings of more than 10 stories and commercial buildings more than 24 meters high. No doubt it's a move inspired by the fire that consumed a tower inside the China Central Television headquarters complex in 2009.

This may not go far enough to prevent all injuries, but it's a step up from limiting firework use to displays put on by local governments.

Though often awe-inspiring, a one-off fireworks display put on by an authority is short lived and feels distant. It's the equivalent of giving a tic-tac to a whale when compared with the buzz of blasting off a stack of your own explosives.

In the Year of the Rabbit, it's smart not to hop on the ban bandwagon too quickly. It may lead to the demise of one of the world's most joyful celebrations.

Don't take heart out of world's greatest festival

(China Daily 02/17/2011)

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