Traditional firework maker ignites debate on legal status of customs

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/10 19:18:39

Yang Fengshen holds up his Hebei provincial cultural heritage certificate. Photo: IC

Yang Fengshen, who has inherited a craft practiced in his hometown for centuries, never thought that following in his ancestors' footsteps would land him in a cell.

The 79-year-old has made traditional clay pot fireworks for a local lantern festival for decades, in accordance with a tradition that is thought to have existed in Zhaoxian county, North China's Hebei Province for over 1,000 years.

On February 19, 2016, three days ahead of his village's annual "fire party," Yang and his fellow villagers were preparing fireworks. However, all of a sudden, police officers burst into their workshop and detained them. The cops told the men that they had received a tip-off that "someone was making explosives illegally."

Yang Fengshen and his designated successor Yang Guangqing were detained for 20 days. Yang Guangqing was released without charge and Yang Fengshen was bailed awaiting trial. On January 4, local prosecutors indicted Yang, and he was sentenced to four and a half years behind bars by a local court on April 20 for "illegally producing explosives."

Yang then appealed to the Intermediate People's Court of Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei, and is now waiting for the second trial.

One almost hit people

"It is something that has been handed down from our ancestors and we have been doing this for years. Why is it suddenly illegal?" Yang, who says he has been making fireworks for 20 years, told The Beijing Times.

The local culture department said that fire parties have been held in Nanyangjiazhuang village for centuries and the tradition has been growing in popularity in recent years.

Residents said that the fire parties are held to commemorate a god who controls people's destiny and lifespan. To show respect, at 8 pm on every lantern festival, villagers light lanterns and set off fireworks.

In 2011, the fire parties were listed as an intangible cultural heritage of the province and in 2013, Yang became an official provincial-level inheritor of the craft.

Yang says that the charges that have been levied against him are ridiculous as his fireworks have never hurt anyone. "There might be some accidents. For example, if the firework burns quickly, they may pop. But the airflow can only break the clay case and they never explode," Yang claimed, adding that even the accidents are not dangerous.

However, Yang Yinli, the village chief, said that the homemade fireworks are risky. In 1980 or so, a firework almost hit people when it flew high and sprayed sparks, he says.

Culture vs rules

Yang's conviction has ignited debate online with some accusing the court of having no "humanity and common sense."

Some argue that the recognized status of his firework-making craft should mean the practice is protected by law so it can be passed on.

However, others have said that the heritage's status and Yang's status as an inheritor has no relationship with his sentence as the law does not offer exceptions based on these factors. 

Yang's lawyer told The Beijing Times that if Yang could get a permit to make fireworks from the local government, the problem might go away.

An article published on gmw.cn, the website of the Guangming Daily, said that the case shows the fierce conflict between traditional customs and modern rules.

"Apart from the fire party, other intangible cultural heritages also face the same problem. We obviously cannot abandon all this heritage to avoid problems," said the article.

The Hebei culture preservation center has asked the authorities to release a judicial interpretation to protect intangible heritage.

Recently, China has been cracking down on illegal explosives and firearms. Police destroyed a large number of illegal guns and explosives in more than 200 cities and counties on Wednesday amid a national campaign to enhance public security.

Global Times
Newspaper headline: Explosive charges


Posted in: SOCIETY

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