Wang De, inheritor of Dashuhua in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, wears sheepskin inside out to protect himself from burning. [Photo provided to China Daily]
The Lantern Festival, which fell on Tuesday, two weeks after Lunar New Year, is the busiest time of the year for folk artist Wang De, but it is also the moment when he feels the most proud of his signature craft: creating molten iron fireworks.
Wang, who is a blacksmith by trade and an exponent of the 500-year-old art of Dashuhua, which literally means "creating tree flowers", lives in Yuxian county in the city of Zhangjiakou, North China's Hebei province.
To create molten iron fireworks, scrap iron is melted up to 1,600 C and thrown against a cold wall to create dazzling effects.
Wang De, 55, and his assistants have presented over a dozen performances for villagers and tourists since Feb 6 as part of the events to celebrate Lunar New Year.
This year, the first day of the Spring Festival holiday fell on Feb 5. And his night gigs ended on Wednesday.
It takes four people to do the performance at the Tree Flower Square of Nuanquan town.
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 the wall. Then there is a burst of sparks from the wall.
Each performance needs about 300 kilograms of molten iron, which he buys from scrap stations.
"I wear the sheepskin coat inside out so it is not easily ignited when the sparks hit it," he says.
Wang and his assistants throw molten metal against a cold stone wall to create a shower of sparks in Yuxian county, Zhangjiakou, on the eve of Lantern Festival on Monday. [PHOTO BY GREG BAKER/AFP]
His straw hat is specially designed with a wide downward brim so sparks will roll down without burning the hat.
But the high-risk tradition is still a game for the brave.
During a performance a few years ago, Wang suffered severe burns on his leg.
"It took me two months to recover," he says.
He still bears the scars from the burns.
An intangible cultural heritage of Hebei province, the show is per-formed only in Nuanquan, which was founded in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) as a garrison for Beijing.
Then, the iron-making industry flourished in the township as it was a base for making weapons. And blacksmiths drew inspiration from the sparks and amused themselves by throwing molten iron at walls during the festive season.
Both Wang's father and grandfather were blacksmiths.
"I learned the craft from my father. When I was young, I thought it was exciting. But years later I also felt it was my responsibility to pass it on to the next generation," he says.
"I have two sons, and I made my younger son learn the craft. He has to learn. Otherwise, it will be lost."
Though Wang's son, 22, has mastered the skill, he has not performed in public yet.
The art of Dashuhua requires extraordinary courage, skill and strength. A single spoonful of iron weighs more than two kg.
"When I scoop the iron from the pot, I do not go too deep. Otherwise, the molten iron will explode because of the contrast in temperature between the spoon and the hot iron," Wang De says.
Wang performs at night on weekends from May to October and during the month when Spring Festival takes place. He earns 300 yuan ($44.6) per show.
On weekdays, he attends his corn field.
Speaking about the performance, village official Duan Yujiang says it takes years of practice to reach Wang's level.
The molten iron fireworks performances, which were once a show for the poor who could not afford fireworks, has now become a major tourist attraction.
And Wang hopes the revival of the tradition will bring more visitors to his hometown in Zhangjiakou, also the co-host city along with Beijing of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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