The sound of firecrackers is a distinctive feature on Chinese
festivals and joyous personal occasions.
Firecrackers are called by various names at different times
and in different parts of the country. At the very beginning,
crackers were used to scare away wild beasts, especially a legendary unicorn called nian, which appeared regularly at the end
of winter or beginning of spring, wreaking great havoc among
the people. That was long before the invention of gunpowder,
and people burnt dry bamboo sticks to produce the explosive
sound. So the first firecrackers were called baozhu (cracking
bamboo), which is still the name in some books.
Incidentally, nian, the name of the animal which appeared
at yearly intervals, came to mean "year". And the custom of
letting off firecrackers at the New Year has become deep-rooted
in all parts of the country. The beginning of the custom can be
traced in written history to at least 2,000 years ago.
When gunpowder was invented in China, it was used to fill
in bamboo tubes and, when lighted, produced loud explosions.
Firecrackers came to be called baozhang (exploding sticks), a
name still used in certain regions. According to the Song Dynasty work Origins of Things, the first scientist who used gunpowder in crackers was Ma Jun of the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-265), which puts their beginning at 1,700 years
Baozhang led to the earliest crackers of gunpowder rolled
in paper, which could give out single explosion only. The double-bang ertijiao and stringed firecrackers bianpao came as later
innovations. The "double-bang" is a tight paper roll composed
of two powder-filled chambers; the first explosion bursts the
bottom chamber and sends the cracker up into the air and then
the second explodes, making a loud and far-reaching report.
Modern times have witnessed further improvements of the traditional firecracker. Colour-luminescent chemicals are added into
gunpowder, and the firework shells fired up by cannons explode
high in the air, covering the night sky with magnificent displays
of colourful splendour.
Enthusiasts for firecrackers have always been youths and
children. Given the excuse and occasion-New Year, a wedding, a victory scored by the national team at an important
world sports event, the opening of an international festival,
etc. they will resort to firecrackers to express their jubilation.
And the custom seems to have been spreading fast to other nations.