Liuyang: Where the world's fireworks are born
Long march to number one
The Chinese credit Liuyang as the historical birthplace of fireworks.
A Tang Dynasty monk named Li Tian is said to have filled sections of bamboo with black powder, thus inventing the world’s first firecrackers in order to drive away evil spirits.
Liuyang’s people are clearly proud of this heritage — a dedicated fireworks museum stands in the middle of town.
However, Liuyang’s status as the world’s production capital is a fairly modern phenomenon.
While Liuyang was known for its family-made fireworks, particularly firecrackers, for much of the 20th century Western countries like the United States were big producers.
Like other cultural treasures, after the Communists took over in 1949, China’s fireworks tradition was thrown into turmoil.
During the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, new economic think from Mao subsumed Liuyang’s traditional workshops into sclerotic state-owned enterprises that stymied quality and innovation.
Incidentally, the Chairman was schooled in Hunan’s capital, Changsha, just 60 kilometers away from Liuyang.
It wasn’t until the opening of China, with Nixon’s visit in 1972, that the Chinese fireworks industry would see a serious revival and a transfer of accumulated Western know-how back to China.
Because fireworks are labor intensive and don’t require sophisticated manufacturing technology. they became a rapidly growing export, with China’s state-owned Horse and Temple of Heaven brands being some of the first known to the West.
Today China produces 90 percent of the global supply.
However it was Guangdong province’s Dongguan, not Liuyang, that began to dominate China’s export industry due to its proximity to the Pearl River and the trade center of Hong Kong.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that pressures from urban development and a spate of deadly accidents encouraged a return to the birthplace of pyrotechnics.
Now that Liuyang has claimed its birthright, save for very specialized applications like stage fireworks, there is virtually no firework manufacturing left in the United States.
Although Beijing strictly regulates the manufacturing process and safety conditions have improved, accidents still happen from time to time.
“It’s better than it was … but they still have some problems with their production,” says Charles Weeth, Principal of Weeth & Associates, a pyrotechnic consulting firm.
One of the key safety methods employed is to have flammable chemicals stored and mixed in small bunker-like buildings built into hillsides that only house one worker at a time.
That way, if something happens, “it will take out only whatever is being produced right then, right there,” explains Winkle.
However, problems arise in loading and assembly areas, where there are often a number of workers together in close proximity.
“It is not so much that they’re not interested in worker safety, as much as it is tradition and resistance to change; keeping costs down and production up,” says Weeth.
“Beijing’s goal is to keep people working by any means necessary and that’s true whether it’s making fireworks or iPods.”
Rolling your own
For serious pyromaniacs who want the Liuyang experience without the travel, a number of countries legally sanction making fireworks for personal use — amazingly, even in post-9-11 America (laws vary by state).
I spoke with Harry Gilliam, owner of Skylighter, a U.S. supplier of chemicals, components and information for Americans wanting to build their own.
“There’s probably between 35,000 and 50,000 people in the United States who make their own fireworks,” he explains.
However, Gilliam advises caution. “There’s nothing ‘safe’ about making fireworks. It’s not for everybody,” he says.
“People really ought to look long and hard and say, ‘is this for me, am I willing to take the risk?’… and, if so, go about it right and try to be as safe as possible.”
For those thinking seriously about taking up fireworks as a hobby, there are a number of organizations they can join, such as the Pyrotechnics Guild International, that can provide guidance.
American Fireworks News also offers a wide selection of informative books and videos on the subject.
(Pyrotechnics Guild International).
A return to the West?
China’s rapidly aging population means that in the future there will be a smaller labor base for manufacturing.
Although the production process will undoubtedly become more mechanized, this labor shortage, along with an appreciating currency and high transportation costs, have some asking if there will be a revitalization of pyrotechnic manufacturing in the West.
“There’s always talk about resurgence in production here in the United States,” says Weeth.
“But many of the facilities that used to manufacture fireworks are old and would have difficulty meeting modern safety standards. Also knowledge in production is just not what it once was.”
With its confluence of talent, infrastructure and history it seems that for the foreseeable future the world’s birthplace of fireworks will remain its capital.
As I come back from Liuyang I find myself worrying that I won’t be returning to the United States anytime soon either.
There are a lot of career options in China and I can’t help feeling that fireworks would be one of the coolest, as another salvo of Liuyang shells bursts above the river in front of me. Boomtown indeed
The end result — Changsha’s weekly Saturday fireworks display on Orange Island.
Getting there: Liuyang can be reached easily from Hunan’s capital, Changsha, which hosts a public display of Liuyang’s output every Saturday night around 8 p.m. on Orange Island.
Changsha is served by high-speed rail from Shenzhen/Guangzhou (about three hours, around RMB 300), with air links to major Chinese cities and select international destinations in Asia (airport code CSX).
Buses for Liuyang depart frequently from Changsha’s East Bus Station (90 minutes, about RMB 25) or take a taxi directly from the airport.
Liuyang’s Chinese Fireworks Cultural Museum is open six days a week from 9 a.m.–5 p.m., admission RMB 30.
Jerry Redfield III also contributed to this article.