The Yanshui Fireworks Festival, aka Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival for reasons that will be explained in the following (and we will refer to it in the following with the latter name, for reasons that will become obvious), is an annual fireworks festival that takes place in Yanshui Township, a small village that lies about 25 kilometers northeast of the city of Tainan, and which coincides with the Chinese Lunar New Year. More specifically, the fireworks festival is held on the second day of the traditional Chinese Lantern Festival, which latter festival is celebrated everywhere in the Chinese world, including on Taiwan, beginning on the 14th day and ending on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year.
The origin of the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival, which is peculiar to Yanshui*, supposedly relates to a cholera epidemic that broke out in the then village of Yanshui in 1875, killing both humans and livestock in great numbers and allegedly raging on for another 20 years, though given what we know about cholera as it spreads today (it is one of the most contagious diseases known to man, alongside influenza and typhus – but the superbug that spreads like wildfire in hospitals, MRSA, is not to be scoffed at in this regard either!), it is a wonder that it didn't wipe out the entire village in the space of a month, though today cholera spreads this rapidly only in developing countries where sanitation, both on the personal hygiene and the communal level, is lacking or is grossly substandard (since cholera can be passed between humans via bodily secretions, it can easily spread among family members, and since it is also waterborne, it can infect communal water resources where these are lacking in sanitary regulation (think of a river where all of the villagers bathe and/or wash their clothes, as well as fetch household water)), spreading quickly throughout an entire village in weeks if not days.
What apparently saved the village of Yanshui from being decimated entirely was the fact that most of the villagers simply fled (albeit, some of them carrying, one presumes, the disease with them to their new homes!), while those who remained tended to keep a healthy distance from each other, since, during any epidemic, suspicion naturally falls on the risk of being infected by one's fellows. How the village of Yanshui avoided contagion through a communal water resource is a mystery, but they apparently managed to avoid this problem somehow.
But perhaps the reduced risk of contagion in Yangshui can at least partly be explained by the fact that the villagers lit lanterns in front of their houses at night, ostensibly to ward off evil spirits – which is, in a nutshell, what the Lantern Festival is all about – while the practice also served to prevent unwanted persons, perhaps infected persons, from lurking about. Gradually, as the threat of the disease waned, the villagers of Yangshui ceased to think about what the real reasons for the initial spread of the disease was as well as the reasons for its later disappearance, and instead focused on the convenient notion that the lamps had warded off the evil spirits who had spread the disease initially.
At the annual Lantern Festival at the close of the Lunar New Year in Yanshui, the use of fireworks therefore came to be seen as an extra-potent symbol for warding off the evil spirits that had brought cholera to the village, and thus was born the notion of the special fireworks ceremony during the close of the annual Lantern Festival. There is perhaps another dimension of the festival that relates to the cholera epidemic...
At the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival, the rockets and other fireworks are not launched skyward as is the usual custom everywhere else around the globe where fireworks are set off at celebrations, but are instead launched at an angle tilted just slightly above the horizontal, meaning that the rockets zoom over the heads of the assembled masses, some of them landing amidst those who stand closest while others land in the middle of the crowd and still others land at the rear of the crowd. The chance of being hit with an errant rocket, or a fizzing rocket that simply failed to take off properly, is greater the closer one stands to the battery of rockets, and if you wish to avoid being hit at all, keep far away initially, then approach the boundary where the farthest rockets fall, remaining just beyond this boundary (you will probably be in good company here if you are a tourist; they say that many tourists choose precisely this vantage point to enjoy the wacky Yanshui fireworks festival).
Among the Taiwanese, it is considered good luck to be hit by a flying rocket. Your chances of being hit by a rocket within the first 30 minutes if you stand in the center of the crowd is probably close to 70%, which is deliberate on the part of the organizers, of course, the idea being that it is not only the light from the rockets, but their fire and smoke as well as their fizzing and popping sounds that dispel the evil spirits. If you remain "in the thick of the battle" until the festival ends, at around 5:00 AM, you will surely be hit by multiple rockets unless you possess some kind of special magic.
Of course, it is never pleasant to be hurt, which is why – especially if you value your eyesight – it is highly recommended that, as a minimum precaution, you wear some kind of tight-fitting protective goggles, though wearing a full-face motorcycle helmet is even better, and in fact is more or less standard equipment at the festival. It is also highly recommended that you wear a rugged, long-sleeved shirt or a jacket, and that you button up the collar, and additionally, wrapping a towel or a flame-retardant scarf around your neck is not a bad idea, as it prevents burning cinders from landing on sensitive skin. A one-piece jumpsuit made of rugged, flame-retardant material that has a high collar that can be buttoned up, together with a full-face helmet, is probably the best insurance policy if you would like to enjoy this weird party to its fullest, though it is said that some of the local male youths wear nothing more than a loincloth, just to prove that they are tough (your parents – at least your mom – would probably recommend that you be smart and leave toughness to dummies).
The origin of the term "beehive" stems from the special way that the battery of rockets are arranged. Just as a medieval army defended against a frontal attack by forming staggered rows of armed warriors (think of longbows), some squatting (the foreground), some standing (the middle ground) and some on horseback (the background), the battery of "rocket launchers" (bottles) consists of bottle holders that are welded together in a staggered fashion, both horizontally and vertically, the result resembling a honeycomb, or beehive.
* Note that almost everywhere in the Chinese world, the Lantern Festival marks the close of the Lunar New Year celebrations. And ever since fireworks were invented, they have been used to close out the Lunar New Year/ Lantern Festival with a bang. What makes Yangshui's Lunar New Year/ Lantern Festival closing fireworks ceremony different is that 1) its very raison d'être (to be explained in the above) is unique, and 2) it launches the fireworks in a way that can only be described as unique (also to be explained in the above).
Date: On the 15th day of the Lunar New Year (generally near the middle of February of the (Western) Solar Calendar.
Location: Near Wu Temple in the city of Yanshui. You can drive there by car via National Highway 1 from Tianan City (Yanshui, often written as Yanshuei on Google Maps, lies about 25 kilometers northeast of Tianan City), or, on the day, there will most certainly be a special tour bus reserved for the trip from Tianan City to Wu Temple and back.