There may be nothing stranger in this land than this annual fireworks festival – or battle, or blowout – in which thousands of people place themselves willingly in a melee of exploding fireworks. Officially, the festival re-enacts the Yenshui people’s supplication to Guandi (the God of War and Righteousness) to save them from a terrible epidemic.
It was 1875, and cholera was killing off the town; nothing known to mankind was helping. In desperation, people began to parade their gods through the town and set off noisy and smoky firecrackers to scare away evil disease-spreading spirits.
For the older generation, the current Yenshui festival still honours the old event, but for the younger crowd it's an opportunity to live life on the edge. Crowds of 100,000 or more can gather. It's hot, smoky and tense, very tense. When a nearby 'beehive' is set off, thousands of bottle rockets fly at you and over you (though hopefully not through you). The noise deafens, the smoke blinds and the rockets sting.
Some people travel from overseas every year to be part of the excitement. Tens of thousands more come in from all parts of Taiwan. Accidents, burns and lost eyes are all common, though most people try to mitigate damage by wearing protective clothing. A motorcycle helmet is considered mandatory, as is thick, nonflammable clothing and earplugs. Many people also wrap a towel around their neck to prevent fireworks from flying up under their helmet.
If you're injured you should be able to find medical help nearby, but don't expect any sympathy. And certainly don't expect any compensation. You participate at your own risk.
Yenshui is in the north of Tainan County. You can reach the town by taking an express train to nearby Sinying and then a taxi. Be prepared to be out all night, and take care of your valuables. The festival takes place every year during the Lantern Festival, two weeks after Chinese New Year.