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February 20, 2019

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Blacksmith’s performance sparks celebrations of Lantern Festival

THE Lantern Festival is the busiest time of the year for folk artist Wang De when he feels most proud of his signature craft — creating molten iron “fireworks.”

Wang is a blacksmith by trade and an inheritor of the 500-year-old art of dashuhua, literally meaning “creating tree flowers,” in Yuxian County in the city of Zhangjiakou, north China’s Hebei Province.

Scrap iron is melted to 1,600 degrees Celsius and thrown against a cold wall to create a firework-like effect.

Wang, 55, and his assistants have presented more than a dozen performances for villagers and tourists since February 6 as part of the activities to celebrate the Spring Festival, or the Lunar New Year.

It takes four people to complete the performance in the Tree Flower Square of the Nuanquan Township. Wang is the lead performer, while the other three help him manage the iron furnace.

For a show, Wang, wearing a straw hat and a thick sheepskin coat to protect him from the heat, holds a willow spoon in his hand, walks up to the furnace near the wall, dips the spoon into the furnace, and slings a spoonful of molten iron at a wall. The bursts of sparks win thunderous applause from the audience.

Each performance uses about 300kg of molten iron, which he buys from scrap merchants.

“I wear the sheepskin coat inside out so it is not easily ignited when the sparks hit it,” he said.

His straw hat is specially designed with a wide downward brim so sparks will roll down without setting it on fire.

But the high-risk tradition is still a game for the brave. During a performance years ago, Wang suffered heavy burns on his leg. “It took me two months to recover,” he recalled. He still bears the scars.

An intangible cultural heritage of Hebei Province, the art is found only in Nuanquan Township, which was founded in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as a garrison for Beijing. The iron-making industry flourished in the township as a base for making weapons.

Blacksmiths drew inspiration from the sparks and amused themselves by throwing molten iron on the wall during the festive season.

Both Wang’s father and grandfather were blacksmiths.

“I learned the craft from my father,” he said. “When I was young, I thought it was exciting. But years later I felt it was my responsibility to pass it on to the next generation.

“I have two sons, and I made my younger son learn the craft. He has to learn. Otherwise, it would be lost.”

Though Wang’s son, 22, has mastered the skill, he has not performed on stage yet.

The art of dashuhua requires extraordinary courage, skill and strength. A single spoonful of iron weighs more than 2 kilograms.

“When I scoop iron from the pot, I should not go too deep,” he said. “Otherwise, the molten iron will explode because of the contrast in temperature between the spoon and the hot iron.”

Wang performs at night on weekends from May to October and during the month when the Spring Festival takes place. He earns 300 yuan (US$44.34) per show. On weekdays, he attends to his corn field.

Once a show for the poor who could not afford fireworks, the molten iron art firework show has now become a major tourist attraction.


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