Humans are pack animals. People are social creatures, often feeling at home in the hustle and bustle of crowds. Politics is the art of managing crowds, but at the same time it is also about managing economics, finances and public mood.
Modern democracy can be very effective in getting people to work together, but populist sentiment, which is often shortsighted and wasteful, can act as a constraining force. Governments might prefer to call it following the public’s will, but it is more about manipulating public will.
For example, the government puts aside a considerable budget for fireworks displays to celebrate the Lunar New Year and other festivals, giving the broadcasting rights to specific media outlets. The folk version of this is the setting off of firecrackers and the burning of spirit money during Matsu (媽祖) pilgrimages, the lantern festival and Ghost Month.
Taiwan would be a healthier, safer place without these things.
Setting off fireworks and firecrackers and burning spirit money do, of course, please the crowds, but they are certainly not without their dark side. They contribute little, they damage the environment and they can also lead to lung cancer and allergies, in addition to damaging people’s eardrums and polluting the air. Even worse, they eat into taxpayers’ hard-earned money, taking cash that could otherwise have been spent on nutritious school meals for elementary school students, or books or computers for schools, or money to employ more teachers.
Taiwan is a small nation with crowded cities, moderately wealthy, but deep in debt and living beyond its means. Setting off fireworks and firecrackers and burning spirit money merely impoverishes the nation further, exacerbating people’s stress. Worse, neither the government nor the general public seem to be too bothered about the issue of public safety.
Taiwan and China are both afflicted with a preoccupation with fireworks, firecrackers and spirit money and a single-minded, unfettered pursuit of economic development, caring little for safety, health or the environment. Fireworks, firecrackers and spirit money are, put simply, all about greed and self-interest: It is a selfish, ignorant culture that cares little for the effect these things have on others.
People have very short memories. They can get all fired up about adjustments to the high-school curriculum guidelines, but never learn when it comes to the environment, hygiene and health. For example, Taiwanese seem to have forgotten about the death and devastation caused in 2011 when fireworks being offloaded from a truck into a store in New Taipei City caused an explosion. Since then, there have been gas pipe explosions in Kaohsiung and the Formosa Fun Coast inferno.
Taiawn is hardly alone in this. On the other side of the Taiwan Strait there have also been a series of fires caused by fireworks and firecrackers. For example, during the 2008 Dragon Boat Festival, an illegal fireworks display caused damage to China Central Television’s Beijing Television Cultural Center.
Then there were the nearly 6,000 fires or accidents caused by firecrackers in China during the 2011 Lunar New Year that caused 223 injuries and two deaths in Beijing. Only last week there was the huge explosion at a chemical warehouse in Tianjin, unprecedented for this kind of crisis. It does seem that there is something inherently Chinese about this disregard for safety.
Setting off fireworks and firecrackers and burning spirit money is now a kind of common denominator between China and Taiwan.
Tang Dynasty poet Wang Bo (王勃), in his Preface to the Prince of Teng’s Pavilion (滕王閣序), wrote the immortal couplet: “A lone goose, against glowing sunset clouds flies, the color of the autumn waters melts into that of the skies.”
If he wrote that today, he might have changed it to: “Lit spirit money and firecrackers fly, joining exploding fireworks in obliterating the sky.”
Last week, Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) refused to have a fireworks display for this year’s Double Ten National Day celebrations. She has come to a new realization and decided to put a stop to them after having to oversee the reconstruction of parts of her city following the gas explosions last year and anti-air pollution protesters taking to the streets in nine cities and counties around the nation in a joint march on June 6.
Her decision to cancel the Double Ten National Day fireworks display had nothing to do with political fighting between the pan-blue and pan-green camps. The reason behind the decision was simple: It was made out of health and safety considerations.
Over the past several years, fireworks displays have become increasingly popular in Taiwan, and they are getting more ambitious. People are now including them in temple festivals and Matsu pilgrimages. Things are getting out of hand. Fireworks and firecrackers are taking center stage everywhere, as different events try to one-up each other. It is a brash, shallow, testosterone-charged show; only missing the pole dancing.
It is not necessary to shoot pyrotechnics into the air to celebrate Double Ten National Day. It might be better to dig into the ground. Last week, a stone coffin at least 1,700 years old was found at Hutou Mountain (虎頭山) in Puli (埔里), and on a site at the location of the Southern Taiwan Science Park, the earliest examples of millet residues in Taiwan, dating back 5,000 years, were excavated.
People nowadays could learn much from the industrious lives of their ancestors from the times of the Roman Empire, or even when the pyramids of Egypt were being built.
Chiang Sheng is an attending physician in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mackay Memorial Hospital.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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