With the deft hand of an old craftsman, Li Qingfa is practicing picking up molten iron with a wooden spoon in his left hand, while the right one kicks it up in the air.
Li is rehearsing for this evening’s show, when he and around 20 other performers will throw about a ton of bright molten iron against a tall wet wall.
The tradition of iron fireworks, a local custom in steel-producing regions of northeast China, dates back to around 500 years ago.
The folk art has been passed from generation to generation, and today, a number of companies located in the countryside around Beijing offer performances several times a week.
It gets particularly popular around Chinese New Year.
“It is quite dangerous when preparing and making the molten iron fireworks,” says Li.
“Both experienced and young craftsmen alike bear this in mind. Because it is dangerous, the performers may easily get hurt and scalded. So good protection is a must.”
First, scrap iron is broken down into several pieces. Around 30 minutes before the show, a big forge is turned on.
The iron is then placed inside and a performer checks the texture and temperature as molten iron slowly drips out.
It’s a delicate balance to achieve the right temperature. It must been between 1,600 and 1,700 Celsius.
If the molten iron is prepared too early, the iron will cool. But if made too late, the temperature won’t be high enough before the show begins.
Later, as audience members stream into the Great-Wall shaped amphitheatre, Li and his team busily prepare backstage.
In the changing room, around 15 men of all ages – all locals – don protective clothing and exchange jokes.
Li says every part of the body, including the hands and feet, must be protected from the shower of molten iron sparks which can burn through clothes.
“We wear pure cotton and shoes made of cow skin. We wear a protective, sleeveless jacket made of goatskin. On the head, we wear a helmet made of cow skin to protect the head and the face,” he says.
“Every part of the body must be carefully protected, including the hands and the feet. Without good protection, the performer can get hurt, including the eyes.”
The dazzling light show lasts around one hour, songs and dances are spaced between the iron performers’ five-part tour de force.
The third part features a tree; the molten iron is projected onto its branches and bright yellow sparkles trickle down to the ground.
The finale features four performers throwing molten iron against a giant wall. Each performer throws for around a minute and then another runs from backstage to take over.
Yang Ping, an architect from Beijing, drove all the way from Beijing with her husband and son to catch the show.
“Every place welcomes the Lunar New Year in a different way and so the folk traditions are not quite all the same,” she says.
“It has to do with the local weather and folk culture. Iron fireworks may be part of the local customs in northern China. We had never watched it before, so we came tonight.”
Li Qingfa says it’s quite a strenuous job. Every day, the team must practice their moves and also clean the machinery needed to produce the molten fireworks.
But it’s all worth it.
“I have fallen in love with it,” he says.
“As the saying goes: We iron-firework performers get excited at the sight of liquid iron. We are happy. When we are making iron fireworks on stage, we get really, really happy. So exciting!”