WildChina > Destinations > Harbin > Secrets of a Harbin Ice Sculptor

by Laurence Coulton

Centuries ago, in the frigid landscape of China’s northeast, fishermen on the Songhua River were faced with a problem. Eking out an existence on the edge of Siberia, they had to find an economical way to light their boats at night, protecting the delicate flames of their candles from the biting winds of Heilongjiang’s fierce winters. Their solution was to use the only resource they had in abundance: ice.

These early lanterns were crude objects – buckets of water frozen, dumped out and carved to make space for a candle – but they worked, lasting for many months in a world below freezing for nearly half the year. The practice was adopted by local children, especially among peasant families, but otherwise it remained a cultural footnote, a stitch in the immense tapestry of Chinese folk crafts.

Fast-forward to today, and ice lanterns form part of the region’s premier cultural spectacle. Each year, as temperatures drop to -18 degrees Celsius, the provincial capital of Heilongjiang province in China’s northeast plays host to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, the largest, and possibly strangest, winter festival in the world.

Anyone with an internet connection in the past ten years will have encountered phantasmagorical images of this event; famous buildings, Chinese gods and cartoon characters recast with glorious realism as monumental sculptures of ice and snow and lit with polychromatic neon lights that make the whole festival feel even more like a surreal arctic dream.

Harbin native Li Changkun has witnessed the transformation of ice-carving from local idiosyncrasy to global spectacle first hand. An ice lantern exhibition was first held in the city’s Zhaolin Park in 1963, only to be halted a few years later by the social upheaval of the age. When it rebooted in 1985 the focus shifted to sculptures rather than lanterns, and Li was one of the first involved.

Harbin Ice Sculptor
Harbin ice sculptor, Li Changkun

“I started when I was in my mid-thirties,” Li explains, “I was assigned to the job by my work department, it was kind of a call-up I suppose. We received special training for half a month, then it was all about hands-on experience. I had previously worked as a carpenter, so it came fairly naturally to me.”

In the true spirit of reform-era China, competing ice festivals soon sprung up elsewhere in the city. A site appeared at Sun Island dedicated to gargantuan snow sculptures of Chinese dragons, Moomins or Sir Isaac Newton depending on the year. Another – Harbin Ice and Snow World – began constructing enormous frozen replicas of famous landmarks like the Hagia Sofia and Colosseum from immense slabs of ice.

Nowadays, much of the focus is on the creations at the latter, but together Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Fair, Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo and Harbin Ice and Snow World make up the canonical events of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, spurring each other to undertake ever more ambitious creations between December and March each year.

“It feels like the ice sculptures are much more complex than they used to be,” Li says, “the techniques are constantly changing and the ice sculptures get more advanced every year.”

The event may have metamorphosed in recent decades, but it remains anchored to its past in one significant way. The ice used for the sculptures is mined from the river; every sculpture at the modern festival assembled from the same frozen water the Songhua fishermen used to light those freezing nights centuries ago.

Harbin Ice Sculptor
Harbin’s frozen Songhua River

“Normally ice mining begins in early December,” Li says, “it is then loaded onto trucks and taken to different sites where the ice is broken into the sizes and shapes required for the display pieces. After that it’s delivered to the exhibition venue and carved in situ by ice sculptors.”

Preparations for the festival are industrial in scale, with thousands of workers involved in the mining, transportation and sculpting of ice and snow displays.

“For even a small scene we need eight to ten people. For the big displays we need 60 to 70. It all depends on just how big it is. Large-scale sculptures are designed by specialist designers who provide a blueprint for the sculptors to follow. The smaller sculptures are designed by the artists themselves.”

From humble beginnings in a Harbin park, evolution has been a hallmark of the festival down the years. A partnership with Disney in 2009 saw the ice lantern fair taken over by frozen statuettes of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Yet in the midst of these changes, the most profound feature of this art form has remained.

Harbin Ice Sculptor
Li Changkun’s ice sculpting tools

When spring comes and temperatures rise, these spectacular masterpieces – painstakingly created by the work of a thousand hands – are doomed to melt away. While many of those involved return to manual jobs in construction and agriculture, the professional craftsmen tread a different path.

“During the summer months we go to cold storage locations in the south and continue making ice sculptures,” Li reveals. “In places like Taiwan and Guangdong, we would work in freezers with air conditioning where the temperature is set somewhere between -7 and -10 degrees Celsius.”

“We only need to wear thin padded jackets though,” Li smiles, “compared to working outside in Harbin it’s not all that cold.”

Harbin Ice Sculptor
Li Changkun with one of his earlier sculptures (Belguim, 2008)

Meet Li Changkun yourself on our
winter small group departure to Harbin

He’ll be joining us at Ice and Snow World for an in-person Q&A on his work sculpting the masterpieces that make up this annual festival.

Harbin Ice Lanterns and Skiing