What we think we know about Chinese inventiveness today is often negative. Foxconn, disappointingly the manufacturer of the Apple iPad, has come under intense scrutiny for its alleged sweatshop work ethic, and every company you can think of has had to turn its intellectual property radars up to full-beam as the country’s entrepreneurs crank out knock-off after knock-off.
But while the lessons we can learn from the China of today seem like little more than cautionary tales, one of the most important life lessons I know can be summed up in an analogy of a single ancient Chinese invention: fireworks.
Firework displays of the truly dramatic kind such as the one lighting up the sky over Beijing’s Forbidden City above, or those that herald the arrival of a new year in cities all around the world, are sensational because of their scale. A single firework of the kind you might set off in your back garden to celebrate (bizarrely) Guy Fawkes* is okay; good enough to entertain the kids perhaps, but justifiably fails to gain real attention.
Why? Cos it’s a firework. Who cares?
But 10 000 fireworks? All at once? Enough to turn the night back into day for a few moments? Ah, now that is really dramatic.
And it was that sort of display in Ancient China that caught the attention of western travellers in the first place, and led to their export all over the world. Maybe not 10 000 of them, but a couple of hundred perhaps.
So why do I think this matters? The analogy is simple enough: the most interesting people I know are those that live their lives like firework displays with massive volumes of activity packed into their days. They may appear to be little more than office colleagues, but then you find out they’re the lynchpin in their amateur team sport, record a podcast every weekend on a niche subject that deeply interests them, are learning another language and play a mean flamenco guitar.
To the people who know them best, you’ll be surprised to discover they’re like fireworks who light up a small portion of the sky every time they step into the room.
I know people like this. I know lots of them actually. You often don’t have to dig very deep to find out that people on the whole are a hell of a lot more interesting and quirky than you realise.
It’s not one thing with them. It’s lots of things, all the time. And we all know we could be more like them if we stretch a little.
What’s most impressive about the human fireworks I know is the very high level of specialisation they have in an array of subjects and activities. Compared to generalists who struggle to make an impact and one-track specialists who may make a deep impact in a single area, human fireworks show us we’re capable of living lives that are more full than we ever imagined.
And they smell like cordite. Well, sort of …
*Guy Fawkes by the way, is a day that has lost its meaning. Fawkes was an early terrorist by modern standards, whose plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London was foiled and the man himself punished severely for his crime. The observance of Guy Fawkes Night was traditionally about celebrating his failure and ended with the burning of his effigy in a bonfire. Nowadays around the world, it’s just an excuse to frighten domestic animals and delight children. It’s an odd thing to celebrate …