We recently came across what might, at first sight, be regarded as something of a byway of Chinese art: the art of the firecracker label. Firecrackers have been a source of fun and pleasure for Chinese for centuries and a range of social events are marked by their detonation from shop openings to marriages to celebrations of Chinese New Year. However, we were not aware until very recently that the package labels were avidly collected.
James Dyer Ball, in his book Things Chinese, has a detailed description about the process and material used for making firecrackers around the end of 19th century. At that time, firecrackers were usually made by women and children, who used straw paper to make the body of the firecracker, while the fuse was made of bamboo paper imported from Japan, then stiffened with buckwheat paste. The bamboo paper was cut into strips of 14 inches (360 mm) long and 1⁄3 inch (8.5 mm) wide, laid on a table; a string of gunpowder was placed at the center with a hollow tube, then twisted up to make a piece of fuse. The firecracker tubes were made from pieces of straw paper wrapped around iron rods of various diameters then tightened with a special tool. The process is very dangerous and sometimes whole factories are destroyed with considerable loss of life.
A destroyed firecracker factory in China, Chenxi City (November 2013) 11 workers died.
200 to 300 firecrackers were tied up in a bunch, then red clay was spread at the bottom of the bunch, and forced into each end of the firecracker with a punch; gunpowder was poured into it, then the other end was sealed with an awl by turning the tube inward, and a fuse inserted.
There is a goodly selection of firecracker labels to be seen at Mr Brick Label Flickr, from which these examples are taken. Generally, a branded label was affixed to each pack and, at the end of the process, the packs were bundled into wholesale lots known as ‘bricks’, which contained, on average, 80 packs each.
Firecrackers are particularly popular at weddings in China. Here a Shanghai wedding party observe – from a distance – firecrackers in their honour. Photo by Paul Harris from About Face: Photographs from the Streets of Shanghai 2003.