STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Beijing welcomed in the Chinese New Year with pyrotechnics. To celebrate the Year of the Dog, officials decided to lift a 12-year old ban on setting off fireworks. The state media reported that 26 people were hospitalized in Beijing with fireworks related injuries. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.
ANTHONY KUHN reporting:
(Soundbite of fireworks)
In Chinese, firecrackers are called baozhu or exploding bamboo. Legend has it that before the Chinese invented gunpowder, they threw hollow pieces of bamboo onto fires in hopes that the explosions would scare off evil spirits. At one store, a merchant who would only give his surname, Jong(ph) is doing a brisk business, his store shelves piled high with Roman candles and colorful tubes and bricks of firecrackers.
Mr. JONG (Store Merchant): (Through Translator) These are called lightning blasters. They come in 12, 24 and 36 rounds. This is the Lion Dance King, a new product this year. I have strings of 1,000, 2,000 or 5,000 firecrackers. I have one with 5,888 firecrackers for good luck. The ones with 10,000 haven't come in yet.
KUHN: Beijing was one of the first Chinese cities to ban fireworks for safety reasons in 1993, and some 300 other cities followed suit. But the ban was highly unpopular and widely flouted. Now, most cities have rescinded their bans. Beijing resident, Joe Mong(ph) Fei(ph) was buying about $20.00 at fireworks at Mr. Jong's store.
Mr. JOE MONG FEI (Beijing resident): (Through Translator) Scrapping the ban has definitely added a festive mood to the holiday. Since the government's allowing it, I might as well buy some. I've been holding back for more than 10 years.
KUHN: The Lunar New Year is China's biggest holiday. For poor people, it may be the one time of year they get to eat meat or put on new clothes. For wealthier Chinese, it may mean a beach holiday in Thailand or a package tour of Europe. As the clock nears midnight, the crescendo of fireworks rises to a thunderous roar that seems to engulf the whole city. The sky is thick with acrid smoke and bursts of color. The pyrotechnics last late into the night, and by morning, the streets are a wash in bits of red paper.
(Soundbite of fireworks)
An auto mechanic who would only give his family name, Byo(ph), gingerly lays long strings of firecrackers in the street as his young son looks on.
Mr. BYO (Auto mechanic, Beijing): (Through Translator) It really is different this year. Before people had to just light fireworks on the sly. Now you can do it within designated times and places. As for the new year, I don't have any special wishes, but I'm sure each year will be better than the last.
KUHN: Many Chinese New Years traditions have died off. Some have made a come back and other have just changed. People still festoon their doorways with calligraphic couplets and prepared traditional foods. They flock to temple affairs to watch stilt walkers, opera and acrobats. And instead of paying holiday respects to friends and relatives in person, many now just send greetings by cellphone text message.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.