Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival 鹽水蜂炮
Yanshui is a modern festival, held in the usually buccolic Taiwanese village of the same name, wherein festival-goers stand in front of -- and get blasted by -- large walls of horizontally aligned bottle rockets.
It wasn't always for fun, it was once said to have rid this village of a particularly tenacious cholera plague and is still believed by many to bring peace and fortune to the village and those that participate.
Yanshui is one of my favorite Taiwanese festivals because everybody is free to participate. I am the first to admit that it sounds like some crazy sadistic ritua, but the festival attracts thousands from all walks of life and all parts of Taiwan and the world.
I believe, once you step in front of a Yanshui wall and feel the thrill of the event, you will be addicted.
I have covered Yanshui quite extensively over the years including daytime attractions, early preparations, participants, The Martial Temple, gods and rituals associated with the event, etc., and have compiled a photographic account of the event here.
If you do go, always be prepared wherever you are!
Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival 鹽水蜂炮 — A Photographers Guide
“Those of us ‘in the know’ brace ourselves for first impact when we hear the familiar ‘chunk-whoosh, chunk-whoosh’ of the heavily protected god palanquins swinging into action. We begin hopping up and down now — partly so we don’t get trampled in the crushing crowd, and partly so the fizzing bottle rockets will not get lodged for too long on our bodies, hopefully inflicting less harm. As the first bottle rockets part from the hive and slam into us, many of those who pushed to the front are now having a change of mind and are frantically pushing to get out. “
Yanshui Walls 炮城
I was standing in front of a Yanshui “wall”. “Walls” or ‘pao cheng’ (炮城 artillery fortress) come in many shapes and sizes and are usually bamboo or metal structures filled with intricately fused together bottle rockets stacked on horizontal shelves. All improbably aimed at the crowd. On top of the wall is vertical pyrotechnic display fused to erupt after the bottle rockets have run their course. Larger walls may be almost two stories high and eight meters wide while the smaller ones are only the size of a small sawhorse, but all bristle with pyrotechnics and are equally capable of inflicting damage. Festival goers simply call these structures “walls”.
“Seemingly innocuous ‘phsst, phssst’ sounds of the first rockets leaving the hive break the silence. The barrage of rockets begins at my feet, pounding through my boots and sending trickles of fear through my body, I know the salvo will slowly climb up my body, testing my hastily prepared defenses. Will I join the unlucky being hauled off in a steady stream of ambulances?”
The annual Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival attracts tens of thousands of visitors and has become popular worldwide. Writer Steven Crook even named his first book about Taiwan “Keeping up with the War God,” alluding to following Guan Gong (the war god) through the crowded streets of Yanshui. Steven writes, “The fury over, one of my friends appeared from nowhere and thumped me several times on the shoulders and chest. I assumed he was congratulating me on coming through unscathed. Only when I took my helmet off did I realize what had caused his frenzy: The old towel I had wrapped like a keffiyeh around my neck and shoulders was half-charred and still smoldering. The following day I heard that nearly fifty parade participants had ended up in hospital, either burned or crushed in the mayhem.”
That was in 1995 and was this writer’s first year to experience the Annual Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival. Not much has changed since then; perhaps more safety oriented posters, flyers and announcements and the plastic bottle rockets were deemed too dangerous and outlawed a few years back and be replaced by the paper type. I can’t tell the difference — they are both capable of breaking the skin and leaving serious bruises through several layers of clothing.
“My back is taking the brunt now as the rockets ignite higher and higher up the wall. I try to push my way out of the front line for respite from the intensifying battering , but the crush of the crowd prevents my escape and, indeed, pushes me closer to the wall of furious projectile explosives. The Phsst has long since given way to high-pitched whistling followed by loud cracks reaching a deafening crescendo as the rockets explode by the hundreds at the end of their angry life in a final attempt to inflict pain and damage.”
The number of injured varies from year to year between 10-100. In 2009 I saw one house on fire and smoke billowing out of a third story window. Several of the many fire trucks on call responded quickly to both incidents preventing spread or further damage.
How does such an insane practice come into being? As with most festivals in Taiwan we have the wonderfully rich folk religion to thank. And a cholera epidemic almost two centuries ago. At the height of the outbreak that was drastically reducing the population of the small Taiwanese village of Yanshui the venerable Guan Gong was paraded through the streets in a palanquin accompanied by firecrackers to scare off the evil demons attributed to the sickness. Verily, the epidemic receded and Guan Gong was paraded annually thereafter accompanied by fireworks and firecrackers to honor and thank the deity, as well as keeping future calamities at bay.
This rite has evolved into modern day Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival held on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, the same day as the lantern festival. It is said to resolve social disorder and insecurity, economic problems and corruption.
“The bombardment finally reaches my helmet and the rockets glance futilely off in search of a more vulnerable target.Through the thick smoke, I see the fire trails flying above my head to seek out those in the distance trying to hide. The acrid smoke has penetrated my clothes and mask and I hold my breath while my aching lungs send signals to my brain questioning my sanity and telling me I need some fresh air or I will die.”
Most of these photos were taken in 2009 which was relatively small compared to other years. There were 20,000 people compared to upwards of 50,000 previous years, but injured also reflected this with only 10 people with minor eye or limb wounds compared to over 50 injuries some years. 7,500,000 bottle rockets blasted off from 200 cannon walls and apparently 150 tons of firework detritus was cleaned up off the streets the following morning.
“I can bear it no longer, exhausted, disoriented and gasping for breathable air, I pull up my helmet’s visor, smoke billows out from inside–it seems I had a bit of an internal fire–and take a deep breath. Strangers are patting each other on the back, some congratulatory and some putting out lingering body fires before myself and my fellow thrill-seekers trudge happily on to the next wall to do it all again.”
Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival Rites
To the Yanshui neophyte it may appear there is no method to the madness, no rhyme nor reason to the rituals. In fact, this time-honored tradition stems from ancient beliefs and the rocket rituals have an easy to follow routine… most of the time.
Firecrackers are set off anytime — before a wall, after a wall or en route to a wall.
Ghost money and/or red paper from wall bearing gods and donors names are always burned just preceding lighting the wall.
When this is lit and palanquin bearers put on their helmets, it is best to follow suit.
The climax of the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival. Braving the wall.
Safety at Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival
First, for those who have never participated, it really is best to keep protected at all times. I believe the stray rockets whizzing down the streets at regular intervals are more dangerous than the thousands erupting from the walls. That said, one must definitely be well prepared for the ‘pao cheng’ barrage.
If you decide to brave the front row of the ‘walls’ it is advisable to take a few extra precautions clothing-wise. Several layers of padded clothing will diminish the amount of pain the rockets will be able to inflict and some strategically placed pieces of cardboard in front of ‘softer bits’ will go a long way. A helmet with a visor is a must. I hang cardboard and non-flammable material off the bottom of my helmet with duct tape to protect my neck and prevent bottle rockets from getting inside my helmet — my greatest fear.
I used to use bath towels, but they catch fire and thick smoke rises and gets trapped inside the helmet reducing the ability to breathe and see. Not good. The problem with bath towels can be seen if the sixth photo down here. It’s my helmet! (the plastic rain jacket worn by Dan is now frowned upon, but used to be standard Yanshui attire) If you do use towels; splash some water on them. The palanquin bearers often screw a thick canvas to their helmets these days. You can actually get this done professionally at a shop near the center of town as well as getting the padded canvas sewn onto a jacket. Thanks to anthropologist Fabian Graham for this tip! Sturdy boots, gloves, earplugs, face-mask and a roll of duct tape for taping up any holes like sleeves or pant legs and you should be ready to roll.
Sadly I can’t wear gloves with my camera (I have tried) so I end up with superficial wounds on my hands. I also wrap my strap around my wrist in the case that the pain of a direct hits makes me drop the camera.
Photography at Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival
Photographing the mayhem is decidedly difficult as you are being repeatedly pummeled by the rockets. I try to shield my camera with my body and use a back up body. You need to fully cover yourself or you will get hurt, so you have to know your camera controls very well because you won’t be able to see anything through your helmet visor due to condensation, soot and smoke. Further, after the barrage starts there is so much smoke and zero visibility and only a very short window of opportunity to get usable photos. Take lots and expect few keepers.
These ‘Raining Fire Walls’ are very bright and a welcome change to the usual dark, smoky, dangerous photographic opportunities.
Remember to turn around and use this large light source for a shot of revelers wearing their helmets while looking at the fire rain.
I find the closer you are to the wall, the harder it is to get good photos. Standing to the side of the wall is safer and gives a nice general view of the action.
Most years it is the soot particles carried by the smoke that did the most damage to the camera and lens. In 2012, a rocket shattered my glass filter and scratched my lens. The impact knocked the reflex mirror off the hinges. As I was well aware, the farther away from the wall; the greater the damage from a hit would be (the rockets build up speed and can really, really hurt). But, I reasoned, the probability of a direct hit to the camera was less so I was using my main camera (Nikon D700) rather than the backup (Nikon D200) that I use in the beehive and has been hit numerous times. Alas, the odds played against me.
Historic Yanshui Village
Do go early, the historic town is well worth a wander in the daylight.
It will also help you get your bearings at night.
If you go, always be prepared wherever you are day or night!
Further Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival Information
Festival information can be found on The Yanshui War Temple’s website or any of prolific Taiwan writer Steven Crook‘s articles are excellent English language resources like this practical PDF about Yanshui Village, or this old China Post article. To get a good feel of the festival, search youtube for videos.