Yu County, Hebei | Showers of sparks during a performance of 'dashuhua'
Showers of sparks during a performance of 'dashuhua'.

Yu County’s Ancient Walled Towns and Fireworks of Molten Iron

Ancient towns and forts, local culture, and the 300-year old local tradition that sees molten iron being flung against the city walls in lieu of a fireworks display!

Level 2
Easy walks and a short hike. 2–4 hours walking about each day. (Can I do it?)

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On this two-day trip to Yu County in Hebei Province you’ll walk the streets of well-preserved Yuxian Ancient City, visiting the pavilions and pagodas, as well as visiting Jimingyi, the remnants of a Ming Dynasty postal relay center. And, on the first evening, we’ll take in a performance that includes Da Shu Hua, a 300-year old local tradition that translates as ‘making a tree of flaming flowers’ and results in molten iron being flung against the city walls in lieu of a fireworks display!

Yu County and Zhangjiakou

Yu County is part of the larger Zhangjiakou prefecture-level city in Hebei Province. Zhangjiakou is right on the main route to Beijing from the northwest, and has been the site of fortifications and wars since ancient times – notably, the Badger’s Mount Campaign in which Genghis Khan won a huge battle against the Jin Dynasty in 1211. Zhangjiakou used to be known as Kalgan, which is a transliteration of its name in Mongolian: The Gate.

Yuxian Ancient City

A gate in the walls of Yuxian town
A gate in the walls of Yuxian town. (Click for larger image)

There’s been a town at Yuxian since the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (386-589), with the area at the time being under the control of the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581). The ancient city was rebuilt in 1377, during the Ming Dynasty, and a lot of that construction remains and is well-preserved—some say it’s the closest best-preserved ancient city to Beijing.

The key sights in Yuxian Ancient City are the Jade Emperor Pavilion, the Nan’an Pagoda (Liao Dynasty, 907-1125), and the Buddha temple.

Nuanquan Town

An ancient gate in Nuanquanzhen, previously the site of the 'dashuhua' performances
An ancient gate in Nuanquanzhen, previously the site of the 'dashuhua' performances. (Click for larger image)

Close by to Yuxian is Nuanquan Town, notable for a site named Xigubao, or the West Castle. The castle was around 67,000 square metres in size and surrounded by high walls of rammed earth. Key parts of the walls were strengthened with brick, and the structure followed a defensive pattern known as The Urn, whereby attacking enemies could be trapped between inner and outer gates ‘like turtles in an urn.’

As well as the castle, Nuanquan is famous for a tradition of papercutting – on previous trips, we picked up some really good ones!

Da Shu Hua: Fireworks of Molten Iron

Showers of sparks during a performance of 'dashuhua'
Showers of sparks during a performance of 'dashuhua'. (Click for larger image)

Throwing ladles-full of molten iron against tall brick walls creates a fireworks-like sparkle that looks like the canopy of a leafy tree. The dashuhua (making a tree of flaming flowers) performance has been a local tradition in Nuanquan Town for over 300 years, said to have come about because of the many blacksmiths of the town.

These days, it’s done part of a show that includes a song and dance routine that illustrates a local legend that culminates with swords being melted down to revive a maiden who’d given her life in order to make the swords better, on the advice of a magician.

Whether there are magicians about or not, it’s still a spectacular sight, and the performance is likely to be attended by quite a crowd. For obvious reasons, it’s an outdoor show, and at night, so we’ll need to wrap up warmly so we don’t freeze before all the action. The performance lasts for approximately an hour, and the splashing about of the molten iron should take up 15 minutes of that hour.

The Walled Town of Jimingyi

Views of Jiming Mountain, from the old walls of Jimingyi
Jiming Mountain, seen from the old walls of Jimingyi. (Click for larger image)

Jimingyi Ancient Town was a fortified postal relay or staging station, built and used during the Ming Dynasty. The extremely tall and thick walls have a total length of just under two kilometers, and were constructed in the same manner as some of the Great Wall: rammed earth in the middle, with an outer layer of bricks.

In the past, this must have been a very important place: as well as the huge walls, other fortifications include large gates topped by towers, towers on each corner of the main walls, and more outside. Inside the walls, there are five main streets that divided the city into planned and orderly sections—administration in the middle, stables and barns at the north, and other areas for accommodation.

White Horse Temple hike

Hiking near White Horse Temple
Hiking near White Horse Temple. (Click for larger image)

On the second day of the trip we'll do a short and easy hike in the countryside, walking through the hills around a tiny village and taking a look at White Horse Temple—an excellent way to get a look at real life in China's countryside.

More photos

Showers of sparks during a performance of 'dashuhua'
Showers of sparks during a performance of 'dashuhua'. (Click for larger image)
Showers of sparks during a performance of 'dashuhua'
Showers of sparks during a performance of 'dashuhua'. (Click for larger image)
A gate in the thick walls of a fort in Nuanquanzhen
A gate in the thick walls of a fort in Nuanquanzhen. (Click for larger image)
Xigubao Castle at Nuanquan Town, Yu County
Xigubao Castle at Nuanquan Town, Yu County. (Click for larger image)
Yuhuang Pavilion, Yuxian
Yuhuang Pavilion, Yuxian. (Click for larger image)
The entrance to Yuhuang Pavilion, Yuxian
The entrance to Yuhuang Pavilion, Yuxian. (Click for larger image)
Hiking near White Horse Temple
Hiking near White Horse Temple. (Click for larger image)
Hiking in rural China
Hiking in rural China. (Click for larger image)
Hiking near White Horse Temple
Hiking near White Horse Temple. (Click for larger image)
Ruins near White Horse Temple
Ruins near White Horse Temple. (Click for larger image)
Courtyards in Jimingyi
Courtyards in Jimingyi. (Click for larger image)
Jiming 'Cockscomb' Mountain
Jiming 'Cockscomb' Mountain. (Click for larger image)
Murals in a Jimingyi temple
Murals in a Jimingyi temple. (Click for larger image)
On the walls of Jimingyi
On the walls of Jimingyi. (Click for larger image)
On the walls of Jimingyi
On the walls of Jimingyi. (Click for larger image)
A tower above one of the gates of the walls of Jimingyi
A tower above one of the gates of the walls of Jimingyi. (Click for larger image)
On the walls of Jimingyi
On the walls of Jimingyi. (Click for larger image)
A tower above one of the gates of the walls of Jimingyi
A tower above one of the gates of the walls of Jimingyi. (Click for larger image)

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Photos and trip reports: Yu County’s Ancient Walled Towns and Fireworks of Molten Iron

  1. Yu County’s overnight trip, 2016/2/10-11

    Yu County overnight trip, 2016/02

    See 68 photos from our February 2016 trip to Yu County to see the traditional street parades and performances for Chinese New Year.

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