Excerpt from Southern Rain: Chinese New Year’s Day

An earlier posting describes my first Chinese New Year’s celebration in Taiwan, in which I saw the streets of Taipei transformed into a veritable shooting gallery of bottle rockets. That memorable experience was one of the many inspirations for my novel, Southern Rain, which opens with this pyrotechnic description of the first day of the year. The time corresponds to February 1644 on the Western calendar. 

It is the seventeenth year of the Chongzhen Emperor’s reign, the first day of the first month – Spring Festival – and smoke is rising over Nanjing, as its people celebrate the New Year by lighting things on fire.

Half the city’s population are setting off firecrackers, to the delight of the other half. In groups of young and old, they hang clusters of the paper-wrapped cylinders like bunches of red bananas from the eaves of temples and taverns. With the touch of an incense stick, the fuse commences to hiss and everybody scatters. If someone chances to round the corner unawares, on his way to visit relatives, he comes abreast of the little bombs the moment they begin to explode and finds himself engulfed in a thundering maelstrom. His chest thumps like a kettle drum hammered by madmen. He flails his arms about his head and staggers away as the crescendo continues, a blur of incandescence hanging in the air near which he passed, casting billows of smoke heavenward. Then, as the last charge on the string gives up its ghost and the echo rolls over the city and disappears into the hills, the celebrants clap and jump for joy, and even the rattled pedestrian grins and waves, signifying no hard feelings. He too is enjoying himself.

In addition to the hanging clusters, some firecrackers can be thrown, and some are miniature rockets. Explosives of these sorts transform Nanjing’s streets and alleys into gauntlets of spark-trailing missiles, air bursts, and ground bursts. Young boys in particular are fond of launching pocket rockets from their hands, to watch them ricochet off buildings and passersby. Their favorite targets are peddlers on donkey carts, because they pretend nothing is happening. They go right on hawking their snacks – “Steamed buns! Dumplings!” – while projectiles bounce off their bellies or lodge in the folds of their robes, sending sparks cascading from their torsos. The pinnacle of fun is to toss a cherry-bomb into the street, timed to explode when a cart passes over it. There it lies, its fuse sizzling, while, say, the noodle-man approaches, crooning “Thick noodles! Thin noodles! Sesame paste! Black bean paste!” and just as his cart reaches it, Bang! off it goes in a cloud of sulfur. Both man and beast jolt from the concussion but emerge unfazed, the peddler resuming his hawking, the donkey his hauling, showing no sign of distress. Onlookers beam and the young pyrotechnicians make ready the next barrage.

Not all that is set alight that day contains gunpowder. Nanjing’s denizens also burn joss paper – play money – as offerings to the gods or to their deceased ancestors. Clan after clan of them, Chens, Wangs, and Zhangs, gather in their kitchens or courtyards to burn wad after wad of the heavenly currency, which takes to the air in particulate form. The offering of joss paper is less likely than fireworks to involve the occasional victim, unless it takes place on the ground floor of a storied building and some poor soul is caught upstairs. In such a case, the unfortunate one, as soon as he realizes he is suffocating, makes a desperate dash to the nearest window and thrusts his head outside. Gasping for oxygen, not even this man complains but rejoices in the good cheer and bonhomie of festival time.

Thus does Nanjing exude mirth and merriment, acrid, dark, and thick. Smoke rises over Cock-Crow Temple, a nunnery on a hill. Smoke curls about the Drum Tower, whose beating of the time that day is drowned out in the din. Smoke mushrooms over Three Mountain Street, Nanjing’s always-bustling bazaar. Smoke hangs above the Qinhuai River, its famous pleasure quarter. Every tiled roof, every bridge and pagoda, every curvy street and winding canal is enveloped in haze. To the gigantic Peng bird of legend, soaring far above town on this New Year’s Day, Nanjing might appear as an exquisite incense censer made to resemble a fairyland. To Nanjing’s human residents, the column of smoke dwarfing their city is yet another of its many superlatives; Nanjing wears it like a plumed crown. The vast metropolis, ringed by a wall of eighteen gates, is the pearl of the Yangtze River valley and original capital of the Current Dynasty. It is opulent and lively and crammed with attractions, the subject of rhapsodies by songsters and poets who call it a paradise. If Nanjing’s celebrated “kingly air” is now tinged with ash, its people breathe it in even more deeply and feel all the more regal for it. They are as proud and prosperous as any people have dared to be. In a consuming exuberance, they revel and roister, until their city is choking with smoke.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and author of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China.

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