Image: Robert Berkowitz
Image: Robert Berkowitz
A maelstrom of orange- and yellow-hued fragments illuminate the darkness as they smash against the wall, painting a spectacular – if all too brief – picture in light. Then they cascade down, perilously close to the man at the edge of it all. However, rather than rush away in fear of his life, the blacksmith merely dips his ladle back into the smelted metal and again throws its contents, creating another stunning if somewhat dangerous display. The assembled crowd, meanwhile, stands in awe, thrilled by the eerily beautiful Da Shuhua light show.
Image: Robert Berkowitz
Chinese New Year, which can arrive anytime from January 21 to February 20, is famous across the world for its pyrotechnical extravagance. However, in the Chinese town of Nuanquan, locals have long since found a way to crank up the festivities an extra notch.
Taking place on the 15th day of the New Year celebrations, the legendary Da Shuhua event sees resident blacksmiths hurl molten metal against a cold brick wall, generating a spectacular avalanche of sparks that engulfs the men as though they are standing in the middle of exploding fireworks.
The custom dates back approximately three centuries to a time when the town was full of metal workers. During the annual Lantern Festival, rich locals would set off fireworks as a means of ritually banishing demons. Meanwhile, poorer blacksmiths, who could not afford to purchase fireworks, took to throwing liquid metal instead.
In doing so, they brought about an effect that was arguably more dramatic and elegant than anything that had ever been produced by gunpowder. And the name of the event took on an equally evocative name. Da Shuhua translates as “tree flower,” owing to the floral patterns the metal creates when it smacks against the wall.
Over the years, the seemingly death-defying practice became increasingly popular. Local families began to encourage the blacksmiths to take part by contributing their unwanted metal for the men to melt down and throw during the festival.
Today, only four Da Shuhua participants remain in Nuanquan. However, what they lack in numbers they more than make up for with skill and showmanship, and their performances continue to be in high demand.
Indeed, spectators brave perishing 5° F temperatures to take in the awe-inspiring proceedings. To meet demand, local officials have constructed a bespoke Da Shuhua area in Nuanquan. As well as featuring a stage, this space boasts a wall that stretches to a full 98 feet end-to-end and more than 32 feet in height.
The celebrations kick off with folk dancing, which is used to tell the story of the event’s mythical origins. According to legend, a young woman sacrificed herself in order to fortify the swords made by her blacksmith paramour, thereby enabling local warriors to successfully defend the village. Then by melting these swords down and splashing the settlement’s walls with the molten metal, the blacksmith was able to restore his lover to life.
Once the traditional dancing is over, it’s time for the main event, and the daredevil performers take center stage with their receptacles of liquefied iron. With each one wearing only a sheepskin coat, goggles and straw headgear for protection, they frantically shower the wall with molten metal, creating dazzling sparks that crash down over them like some infernal rainstorm.
According to one of the performers, the prospect of donning modern protective gear has been discussed among them. However, the idea was rejected as it was thought to be inappropriate in view of the tradition.
Amazingly, though, no participants are believed to have lost their lives or even been severely injured during the event – despite the extreme hazard that comes with flinging around liquids at temperatures of over 1,800° F. It helps, perhaps, that sheepskin does not ignite.
Still, regardless of the lack of serious harm brought about, the threat of danger hangs in the frosty air throughout this explosive extravaganza, doubtless keeping spectators on edge. And for their part, the crowds yell and clap as wave after wave of fiery fluid bursts against the impassive brick wall.
The blacksmiths, meanwhile, appear to show no sign of fear as they continue to launch their missiles at the wall, plunging their wooden ladles into the gurgling stock of liquid iron and hurling it at the obstacle before them, apparently accepting whatever molten fallout comes their way.
And despite the fact that the ladles are doused in water for three days prior to the festival, they nevertheless begin to smoke when dunked into the iron. Hence, the blacksmiths must move at a frantic pace, never letting up even for an instant lest their implements ignite.
The show eventually burns out after an hour. Yet with puddles of steaming, glowing iron coating the ground, the danger isn’t quite over at this point, and audience members must remain vigilant about where they step.
Meanwhile, a new layer of solidified iron coating the ceremonial wall serves as the evening’s permanent legacy. And spectators, moreover, attempt to acquire their own mementos of the show by buying one of the blacksmiths’ ladles.
Interestingly, from a socio-historical perspective, the spectacle now holds Intangible Cultural Heritage status. This is a far cry from the days of China’s Cultural Revolution, when Da Shuhua was outlawed for a decade by Mao Tse-tung’s regime.
What’s more, performers are now experimenting with new ways to thrill Da Shuhua’s audiences. For example, the blacksmiths have begun using different metals – copper and aluminum – in order to create fiery bursts of varying colors.
When it comes to sheer drama, excitement and audacity, Nuanquan’s New Year celebrations are practically unrivaled throughout China, and all without a firework in sight.