See Inside August 2010

Snap, Crackle, Bang

The ancient Chinese invented fireworks to scare off 10-foot-tall mountain men

THAT RAUCOUS RITE OF SUMMER—the fireworks display—may have started as a scholarly tradition in ancient China. Before the Chinese got around to inventing paper in the second century A.D., scribes, using a stylus, would etch ideograms on the rounded surface of green bamboo stalks. The medium served as a way for recording transactions and stories. As the stalks dried over the fire, air pockets in the wood would often burst with a loud cracking noise.

The noise, of course, gradually became the whole point of the exercise. The classic I Ching, or Book of Changes, explains how the cracks and pops succeeded in scaring off the Shan Shan, 10-foot-tall mountain men. Later, the Chinese spiced things up by adding gunpowder to the stalks.

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