When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, young and old alike get stuck with their eyes on the night sky admiring the fabulous sparks. Don’t we all want to take part on lighting up those firecrackers and painting the most beautiful images onto the dark firmament?! Well, this is also what a group of blacksmiths in the Chinese village of Nuanquan thought. And thus, they took fireworks to the next level. While the rest of China celebrates Lunar New Year with classic firecrackers and rockets, the small town east of Beijing puts on a show like no other in the world. The daredevil smiths throw molten iron onto a wall creating an extraordinary, firework-like rain of sparks. Locals call this spectacle Da Shuhua meaning “tree flower”. It refers to the floral patterns on the wall, created by the molten iron after it has cooled down.
15 days of New Year’s festivities summit in an awe-inspiring finale
The final day of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations is when all the magic happens. The festivities start off with cultural acts involving music, dancing and traditional costumes. Following performances of traditional folk dancing that depict the legend of the event’s origins, the main spectacle begins at Nuanquan’s bespoke Da Shuhua “arena”. Due to the growing demand for the spectacular show, the town’s officials have built a dedicated venue. The space boasts a huge wall of 30 x 10 meters for the iron showers. Spectators sit around the stage where they can watch the fire show from a safe distance. Even though many of them probably wish to get their share of the heat as they have to bare the bone-cracking temperatures going down to -15° centigrade.
But as the Da Shuhua performers take center stage, all thoughts about the cold are forgotten. Now all eyes are on the courageous performers that wear nothing but straw hats, goggles and a sheep fur coat to protect them from the rainstorm of fire. The idea of using modern gear against the hot sparks was rejected in order to safeguard the original tradition. Although it seems like a miracle, the flameproof sheep fur has so far successfully protected the men from temperatures of more than 1,000° centigrade. Officially, nobody has lost their life or even been harmed severely during the infernal procedure.
Let the inferno begin!
Two men enter the stage holding a mounting that carries the steaming bucket of hell. They place the container with the lava-like liquid in the center of the stage where the blacksmith is already awaiting his material with a wooden ladle. Prior to the event, the performers had soaked the ladles in water for three days. While this process keeps the wood from combusting, the strain on the timber becomes apparent as flames arise right as the ladle gets in contact with the iron. Thus, as soon as the men are out of reach, the performer kicks off the show.
He dunks the wooden ladle into the bubbling fluid and frantically hurls it against the wall – like a volcano furiously erupting with lava. As the molten iron hits the cold stone, it bursts into millions of sparks. Seemingly unstoppable, the performer repeats the movement over and over in a fast rhythm, creating a continuous shower of sparkling iron particles. For about one hour, the audience is witnessing this unique tradition in which the blacksmiths accomplished to replicate beautiful fireworks in the most extraordinary way.
Right after the spectacle is over, members of the audience rush to acquire a unique souvenir from the memorable event. It is the blacksmiths’ ladles that spectators want to snatch and take home. The marks from the molten iron on the wood make for a great reminder of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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Who is the mad genius to come up with Da Shuhua?
Be it the fireworks on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, the London Eye or Burj Khalifa in Dubai, we owe all these breathtaking New Year’s Eve spectacles to the Chinese. However, at the time of the invention of pyrotechnics in the 12th century, it had nothing to do with today’s extravaganza for the masses. As “normal” people could not afford spending money on sheer entertainment, fireworks were limited to the wealthy elite. And while this would persist for many centuries, some clever – and courageous – blacksmiths finally came up with a way to participate in the annual festivities despite lacking the resources for traditional fireworks. And boom – quite literally – Da Shuhua was born some 300 years ago.
The blacksmiths got the inspiration from their everyday work – the liquid iron glowing brightly in the dark. Thus, they would simply take unused scrap iron, melt it and toss it against the town wall. As the liquid metal hit the cold stone, it bursted into thousands of sparks. The effect was magical and surprisingly resembled traditional fireworks. The citizens of Nuanquan responded to well to it that the attraction gained more and more in popularity. People would start donating their scrap metal for the use in the festivities. And this was not only iron but also other metals. Thus, the blacksmiths started blending in copper or aluminium which resulted in a miraculous variety of colors in the fireworks. Ever since, the tradition has been upheld and nurtured. Especially in recent years, Da Shuhua attracted a growing number of visitors from near and far to the provincial town.
Will the spectacular tradition soon cease to exist?
Despite its great popularity, the odds are long for Da Shuhua. Unfortunately yet quite understandably, only four courageous performers remain in the entire region. Making it even worse, there is no offspring in the art of iron-throwing. All of the active men are over the age of 40. Probably, younger generations look for different careers in the big cities or simply perceive the iron-throwing as too dangerous. Sadly, this means that the valuable Chinese tradition is on the edge of extinction.
At least, the Chinese government has recognized the cultural importance of the “poor man’s fireworks”. After Mao Tse-tung had prohibited the event under his regime, China finally granted Da Shuhua the status as Intangible Cultural Heritage. Nevertheless, if you want to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event, you should hurry before it ceases to exist. Let’s just hope that they will find a way of preserving the valuable tradition for many more years to come.
The next Da Shuhua 2019 will take place in March 2019. Exact dates to be announced!