Mild Weather Takes Edge Off Chinese Ice Festival

A sign warns visitors away from a massive ice sculpture at the annual festival in Harbin. The sculpture is melting so quickly that officials fear it could collapse.
A sign warns visitors away from a massive ice sculpture at the annual festival in Harbin. The sculpture is melting so quickly that officials fear it could collapse. (By Edward Cody -- The Washington Post)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 25, 2007

HARBIN, China -- The hands had melted off a delicately entwined couple of ballet dancers crafted by an ice-sculpting team from Vladivostok. Eaves fashioned from packed snow drooped into icicles at the Roast Meat Fire House restaurant. Authorities banned people from approaching the ice-cube tower at Ice and Snow World because big chunks kept falling off.

The popular ice festival here -- based on a local tradition of making ice lanterns and sculpting snow that reaches back almost 1,400 years to the Tang Dynasty -- has been undercut by climbing temperatures. Heads are falling from statues and intricately sculpted ice animals are turning into shapeless blobs.

The global warming trend that a panel of U.N.-convened scientists last month called unequivocal may or may not be inextricably linked to what is happening in Harbin. It is impossible to say. But the people of Harbin blame climate change for what they say has been a pattern of rising temperatures over the past several years.

"So much melting," lamented Wang Xuhai, director and Communist Party secretary of the Harbin Ice Lantern Art Exhibition Center. "It's part of a worldwide problem."

For Harbin, a usually frigid city in northeast China about 400 miles east of the Russian border, the rise in temperatures is a direct threat to a tourist attraction that brought in 5 million visitors last year and injects millions of dollars into the local economy through tickets, hotel stays, restaurant meals and taxi rides. For China as a whole, the impact is less direct but no less threatening. Breakneck economic growth in recent years has made the country the world's second-largest producer of the greenhouse gases blamed for warming the atmosphere, putting it behind only the United States.

The China Meteorological Administration predicted recently that temperatures will likely continue to rise, by the year 2100 climbing by 7 to 10.8 degrees over the average temperatures between 1961 and 1990. By 2050, the meteorologists predicted, the glaciers of China's far northwest mountains will have shrunk by 27 percent if present trends continue.

Residents of Beijing, 650 miles to the southwest of Harbin, last weekend enjoyed their warmest Lunar New Year celebrations since authorities began keeping records in 1951. Fitness buffs jogged without jackets in Ritan Park and boys played basketball in T-shirts. The Meteorological Administration said records were broken three times in the first half of the month, with a high of 61 degrees on Feb. 5.

While the capital's residents basked in the mild weather during their New Year's holiday, officials cautioned that the long-term effects might not be so pleasant. For instance, the deputy agriculture minister, Yin Chengjie, warned that a rise in temperatures could make controlling bird flu more difficult, confusing migratory birds into changing flight patterns and staying longer in China.

Nobody has to convince the people of Harbin of climate change. Wang said the warming weather has his city-sponsored organization considering whether the annual ice festival will have to be shortened in the future. But that would mean trouble, he added, because the number of visitors reaches its high point during the Spring Festival school holidays now underway.

As the displays began to melt in the days before this year's holidays, Harbin authorities decided to act to keep the tourists coming. They called in more than 2,000 artisans and farmworkers to make emergency repairs, Wang said, reattaching fallen pig ears and refashioning dragon scales that had melted into flat sheets of ice.

Dressed in ski gear, thousands of visitors walked among the buildings of packed snow in the Disney-like Sun Island snow exhibition and gazed at the ice-block churches, temples and castles at the nearby Ice and Snow World. In Zhaoling Park, a downtown municipal facility where the festival got its start, the sculptures were more traditional and the visitors were fewer.

Wang said Harbin residents for generations have fashioned lanterns from ice. During the Qing Dynasty, from 1644 to 1911, peasants used to make them every winter, pouring water into a bucket, pulling out the ice before it froze through and sticking a candle into the central cavity. The lanterns were given to children as toys or hung outside homes for New Year's celebrations. The custom was a way to embrace Harbin's reputation as one of the coldest spots in China.

The municipal government organized the first display of such folk art in 1962 in Zhaoling Park, Wang said, gathering works into one place so people could more easily appreciate them. Authorities later had the idea of sponsoring a contest to see who could make the most beautiful ice lanterns or sculptures.

"It was pretty simple then," he said. "They just wanted to make people happy."

But over the years, things became more elaborate. Sculpting teams from around the world were invited to participate. Other nations with icy weather were invited in as partners -- this year it was Canada. Soon Sun Island, on the outskirts of town in the Songhua River, had its own snow exhibition. As the number of tourists rose, it was followed in 1999 by Ice and Snow World across the road.

The Harbin Ice Festival was officially proclaimed in 1985, starting every Jan. 5 and lasting through the New Year holiday.

True to tradition, local student groups still compete in the ice sculpting contest at Zhaoling Park, joined by teams from around the world. A U.S. team's entry this year, entitled "Mechanistic," depicted wheels and cogs in what looked like a bow to the socialist realism that long ago dropped out of fashion in China. Several Russian cities dispatched teams, including Vladivostok with the once-graceful ballet dancers whose hands had melted into pointed slivers.

Li Xingyu, 20, and several of his classmates from Harbin's Northeast Agriculture University, got together at the end of December and crafted a trio of pigs as their entry, alluding to the new Year of the Pig. But by the time most holidaymakers had time to see the sculpture, the pigs' noses were rounded off and other features had flattened away from melting.

"Every year, it seems to get worse," Li said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company