When I light a firecracker, I make sure to run at least 10 yards away before it pops. That’s how terrified I am of the noise and sparks. So when I watched a video of Taiwan’s Beehive Rockets festival, I was quite shocked. These crazy people deliberately run into bursting firecrackers. They dance in clusters as hundreds of crackers go off, allowing the sparks to rain on them. Like I said – crazy!
The Yanshui Beehive Rockets Festival is one of the oldest folk festivals in Taiwan and the third largest in the world. It has been celebrated for over 180 years in the southern district of Yanshui. Its origins date back to 1885, when a cholera epidemic had gripped the district. Due to primitive medical facilities, the disease consumed thousands of victims. Locals lived in a state of fear and prayed to Guan Di, the god of war, to save them.
So what exactly is a Beehive Rocket? Essentially, it is a multiple launcher of bottle rockets. Thousands of bottle rockets are arranged in rows in an iron-and-wooden framework that looks like a beehive. When the contraption is ignited, the rockets shoot out rapidly in all directions. A deafening, bee-like buzzing sound fills the air. The dazzling explosives whiz and whirl across the sky and into the crowds of dancing people surrounding the beehive.
It is believed that on the day of the Lantern festival (the 14th and 15th day of the first month in the Lunar calendar – that’s sometime in February), Guan Di rode the streets of Yanshui on a palanquin, with General Zhou Cang as his guide. The deity had multitudes of people setting off firecrackers behind the palanquin. Together they travelled through the entire city until the break of dawn, ridding it of the plague in one swoop. Locals have been following the tradition of the Beehive Rockets ever since.
To protect themselves from injuries, locals don heavy clothing, protective gloves and helmets with a full visor. Some also wear a towel around their neck to avoid a stray rocket somehow entering the helmet. Even so, people have been injured in the past. Several requests have been made to ban the festival, but the Taiwanese continue to participate with increasing rigor each year.
In fact, locals believe in getting bombed by as many firecrackers as possible for good luck in the coming year. Visitors from all over the nation and even foreign tourists crowd at the Yanshui Wu temple well ahead of time, to find a good spot before the Beehive Festival starts. It begins at 6:00 pm and goes on until 5:00 am the following morning.
The procession travels in a circuit around the outskirts of the town, thronged by thousands as it slowly makes its way through the streets. It stops at the gates of important places or business houses, and then the beehive is ignited, driving the crowd crazy. The people appear to have the time of their lives, completely unfazed by the ear-splitting noise.
Meanwhile, in northern Taiwan, the Lantern Festival is characterized by thousands of Pingshi Sky Lanterns. Large lanterns are over 10 meters tall and mainly styled after Chinese zodiac signs. Smaller lanterns show other images like historical figures or birds. The moonlit skies are illuminated with 100,000 to 200,000 lanterns – truly a sight to behold!