Yanshui Beehive Rockets is a folk religious event that originated in an attempt to end a plague that was raging through the Yanshui area by praying to Guan Di, the God of War from Yanshui’s Guan Di Temple, to patrol the streets in the form of a statue seated in a palanquin. This was the start of a 130-year long tradition. Initially, traditional firecrackers were fired toward the palanquin as a way of showing gratitude to the deity. The custom has evolved and diversified over time. After World War II, beehive rocket platforms, or gun decks, were created to fire off multitudes of bottle rockets, setting Yanshui apart from other festivities. People invented rocket towers and multi-directional models along with a whole variety of other creative designs, all to show respect to the god. The Beehive Rocket Festival in the south and the Sky Lantern festival of the north are the island’s two major activities on the day of the Lantern Festival in Taiwan.
There are many legends regarding the origin of Yanshui Beehive Rockets. Some say it was created to greet the Jiaqing Emperor when he visited Taiwan, others for a fireworks competition. The most popular version tells of an epidemic raging through the Yanshui area in 1885. Local residents prayed to Guan Di in the local Guan Di Temple. The congregation decided to carry the holy palanquin carrying Guan Di’s statue in procession around the area from the 13th to the 15th days of the first lunar month. Worshippers set off immense amounts of firecrackers along the procession route to rid themselves of the plague. The sulfur must have worked, since from that moment on, it has been customary to set off firecrackers when Guan Di parades through the area during the Lantern Festival. The fireworks evolved from the initial legions of drumfire strings of firecrackers to multitudes of bottle rockets after World War II. In 1980, rocket towers first emerged. Encouraged by the traditional belief that more exploding fireworks would bring greater prosperity and wealth, the event grew larger. Packed with exciting light and sound, the highly entertaining celebration has become a major tourist attraction. Together with the Pingxi Sky Lanterns celebration, it is one of Taiwan’s two major Lantern Festival events, giving rise to the adage “Sky lanterns in the north, beehive rockets in the south.” It is also one of the three major rocket festivals in Taiwan, the other two being the firecracker bombardment of the palanquin during the Beigang Chaotian temple Mazu procession and the Bombing Lord Handan with Firecrackers Event in Taitung. In recent years, the international press has crowned Yanshui’s Beehive Rockets with an array of titles: one of the top three folk celebrations in the world, one of the ten most dangerous festivals in the world, and one of the ten best festivals in the world.
1The Making of the Rocket Towers
The early version of the rocket tower was simply made with several wood planks. The rockets could only fly in one or two directions. This gradually evolved into a large rocket tower, or gun deck, with a metal base and several levels and layers. The top is covered with a metal net onto which the bottle rockets can be affixed to fire in any direction. The rockets can also blast off at multiple angles. Thousands, even hundreds of thousands of rockets are connected with the main fuse placed in the center of the tower. Rocket towers come in various designs; their exteriors are pasted over with paper. They are placed indoors, awaiting the arrival of the holy palanquin carrying Guan Di’s statue, which is when the gun deck is rolled out and ignited in praise of the deity.
2Types of Beehive Rockets
In the past, the firecrackers used to greet the palanquin during the Yanshui Festival were regular fireworks and strings of firecrackers. In 1945, shortly after World War II, bottle rockets appeared. In 1984, the design of the rocket tower grew in sophistication and the paper wads were replaced with plastic, making the whistling sound even louder. When all the beehive rockets swarm out, their long fiery trails light up the night sky. The non-stop blasting is deafening and the light astounding.
3The Parade Routes and Proceedings
The traditional target of the Yanshui Beehive Rockets is the holy palanquin of Guan Di from the Guan Di Temple. Originally a one-day event on the day of the Lantern Festival, the activity became too long and has now been extended into a two-day event that alternates between two areas. The first procession begins on the morning of the 14th and the final one ends late in the night of the 15th day of the first lunar month.
The routes are:
Daytime, the 14th day of the first lunar month: The Guan Di Temple → the old Annei neighborhood → Niuchouzai → Zhongzhuang → Houliao →Jiuying → Citongliao → Guangyin Ping → the Guan Di Temple.
Night time, the 14th day of the first lunar month: The Guan Di Temple → Tuku → Zhuweizaiwei → Qiaonan Old Street → Caodianwei → the Guan Di Temple.
Daytime, the 15th Day of the first lunar month: The Guan Di Temple → Niaosong jiao → North Guan Di Temple Community → the Guan Di Temple.
Night time, the 15th day of the first lunar month: The Guan Di Temple → Wumiao Road → Sanfu Road → the Public Temple → Zhongshan Road → Zhongzhen Road → Qielan Temple → Chaoqing Road → Fuan Temple → Dianxincheng → Yuejin Bridge → Funan Temple → the Guan Di Temple.
The routes are determined in advance during a council meeting. Those who wish to ignite rocket towers during the event must register. When the holy palanquin approaches their doors, the owners roll the gun decks out, remove the red paper covering, and peel off the red seal marked “Eternal Birthday Blessings to Guan Di”. After praying and burning joss paper in front of the deity, the rocket tower is ignited, and the blasting begins. The palanquin is moved forward three times and backward three times, symbolizing Guan Di’s acceptance of the birthday wishes. The air is electric with excitement and expectation.
4Preparation for the Event
Since 1984, the beehive rocket launchers have grown in size. The paper wads in the rockets have also been replaced with plastic, creating thunderous noise and making the rockets more powerful and dangerous. Participants must fully protect themselves to avoid harm. Protective gear includes a full face helmet, a scarf or towel around the neck, a cotton or denim jacket, long pants, gloves, and flats or sneakers. It is unsafe to wear a rubber raincoat or fabrics that are combustible or prone to melting.
The procession of the holy palanquin and the beehive rocket bombardments run from the morning of the 14th day until late at night on the 15th day of the first lunar month. The climax is on the night of the 15th day. Follow the fully-armored palanquin procession and head downtown to experience first-hand a feast of exciting light and sound from the swarming beehive rockets with their ear-splitting noise.