In recent years, firecrackers for celebrating Chinese New Year have been on sale at tents throughout the city. This year – on account of worsening air pollution – Beijing placed a strict ban on the use of fireworks within Third Ring Road.
There are more than 300 kinds of firecrackers on sale this year, and 90 percent of them are available for sale in Beijing. The most popular firecrackers are the hanging model.
Li Tian may have been the first to invent firecrackers during the Tang dynasty when he put saltpeter into the bamboo tubes and lit them ablaze. Many years later, his hometown of Liuyang, Hunan province become one of the famous manufacturing facilities for firecrackers in China.
But recent reforms are driving factories out of Liuyang. Some of the largest factories were told to close when a government audit found they lacked the proper certificates and were contaminating the environment.
An elderly resident surnamed Xu said the industry has shrunk considerably since its peak in the late 1990s. Xu got his start as an apprentice at a firecracker factory. “Trucks would come into our village and pick up literally tons of firecrackers headed for the market,” he says.
Xu’s village had a tradition: the northwest side made fireworks and the south side made firecrackers. At the time, most of facilities were family-owner and staffed by workers who knew the basics of chemical reactions even though they had never been to school.
“There were nearly 100 factories making firecrackers and no one had certifications. They were still qualified to make proper firecrackers,” he says.
“The factories still took a lot of precaution to protect the workers and everyone else. No one was allowed to wear anything that could hold a static charge, and we had to rub our hands over a metal ball when entering to discharge any electricity in our bodies,” he says.
Still, accidents happened and brought government attention. Many family businesses were forced to close, he said. New restrictions shrank Liuyang’s firecracker factories to fewer than 1,000, with only four left in Xu’s village.
But at least some of the closures are due to decreased demand.
The government, once a top client of the industry, has curtailed its purchases in the name of fighting pollution and waste.
“Firecrackers are having a declining right now,” said Peng, the head of one production line. “People are just losing their interest.”
The Liuyang Firecrackers and Fireworkers Management Bureau said the declining is still continuing. Many big cities have banned fireworks, so the market has shifted to small towns and the countryside. Only 20 percent of China’s firework sales occur in cities.
In a poll of 1,000 Beijingers by the Beijing Statistical Information, 83 percent said they had no plans to buy firecrackers this year. Most cited air pollution as their primary concern.
Only 28 percent said they believed firecrackers represented good fortune and tradition in 2016. That fell to 3.7 percent this year.
Firecracker sales abroad may be more promising than the domestic market.
The fireworks show during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics Games attracted global attention. Many of the fireworks used in the display were manufactured in Liuyang.
“The most recent big show done with Liuyang’s fireworks was in Dubai,” says Peng, who also helps arrange firework displays. “That one took a month to prepare, with some 600 packing machines and 3,000 fuses. The 8-minute display in Dubai’s sky cost 2.1 billion yuan to produce,” he says.
Total export of fireworks from Liuyang reached 27.6 billion yuan in 2016, accounting for 60 percent of China’s total firework export. The Liuyang local government said it plans to increase the export rates and promote firecrackers abroad.