Wang De does not mind a bit of danger.
- The town of Nuanquan celebrates Lunar New Year with molten iron
- Once known as the “poor man’s fireworks”, iron is flung against a wall to create sparks
- There are fears the tradition will die out, with only four performers left in the town
Every year during China’s Lunar New Year festival, he risks severe burns to give his neighbours — and an increasing number of tourists — a good show.
He is one of just four men in a small town called Nuanquan skilled in the art of the “Iron Flower”.
It is a 500-year-old tradition, which arose from the region’s history of iron production.
“While rich people had fireworks, poor people in this region created their own by flinging molten iron on the city wall,” he said.
When the molten metal hits the cold brick, it explodes into brightly glowing shards.
What started as a cheap way to celebrate the New Year gradually became a Nuanquan institution, with locals donating their scrap metal for the celebration.
“The tradition continues to this day,” Mr Wang said.
But with Mr Wang struggling to get younger people interested in the practice, he is worried this tradition could one day be lost forever.
‘If it touches your skin, you’ll be burnt for sure’
Each night before a performance, Mr Wang and several other men heat up a blast furnace to melt scrap metal.
“It’s very dangerous. The boiling point for molten iron is almost 1,600 degrees [Celsius],” said Liu Xiang, one of the other performers.
“If any of it touches your skin you’ll be burnt for sure — I have the scars to prove it.”
They then put on a sheepskin coat, protective glasses, gloves and a hat, and begin bringing bucket after bucket of molten iron onto a stage.
They use wooden spoons to fling it against the wall to create the shower of sparks.
“I’m very happy when I perform this. I feel proud to give the audience such a beautiful show,” Mr Liu said.
‘Poor man’s fireworks’ could fade
Nuanquan is about four hours drive west of Beijing, in an area known for dramatic barren hills and freezing, dry winters.
Despite the harsh climate, the Iron Flower brings tourists from across China and abroad.
What was once known as the “poor man’s fireworks” has now become a valuable money spinner for the town.
But the Iron Flower’s future is in doubt.
“Young people don’t want to learn how to do this because it’s too dangerous,” Mr Wang said.
“I’ve taught my son. He’s mastered it, but he’s not interested in performing. I hope in future he’ll reconsider it.
“We shouldn’t let this die out.”
For now at least this tradition continues, reviving an ancient town and lighting up the freezing winter nights.