Not too long ago, a colleague in Washington State posted a PowerPoint presentation of some ice sculptures as part of her mission to bring interesting and significant visuals to her friends’ lives. She did not, however, identify where they were from, and upon our query, she discovered they were part of the Ice and Snow festival in Harbin of Dong Bei (northeast China).
OK. Let’s get the Atlas out. Dong Bei, northeast China that looks like the head of a chicken as Xizang (Tibet) holds the hind quarters, Xinjiang the tail feathers, and Hainan, the egg, was formerly called Manchuria of the Manchus of the last royal house of China, the Qings. Its native name Nipponized was Manchukuo, revived by expansionist Japan when it occupied the territory before WWII, it is divided into Inner and Outer Manchuria.
Tsarist Russia earlier expanded its frontiers and foisted sovereign rule over the Outer north across the Amur, now including the naval port of Vladivostok. The dividing Amur River, aka Heihe (Hei river) from where the northernmost province of China’s Dong Bei, Heilongjiang, derives its name (long means dragon, and rivers are often depicted as a mythical dragon, one of China’s primal symbols), is where one can visit Chinese-speaking Russians, and Russian-speaking Chinese!
Harbin was China Eastern Railway workers’ camp for the Trans-Siberian train. It later became a favored destination of White Russians evading the socialist clutches of the new Bear after the 1918 Bolshevik Revolution. Harbin (in Manchu, the "place where one dry fish nets," with its old rail downtown once dubbed "the Moscow of the East") is centrally situated in Dong Bei, though it is now in the southern part of Heilongjiang province. The provinces of Jilin (where Yanbian Autonomous Region-Korea in China-sits east of North Korea) and Liaoning in the Liaodong peninsula (where we currently reside) in the old Mukden, now known as Shenyang, complete the region of Dong Bei.
Russia had designs on Manchuria at one time, wanting to expand its naval force to the year-round warm waters of Port Arthur, as compared to Vladivostok’s often frozen environs that makes port facilities operational only during the summer months. Japan foiled that plan when its navy was aided by kamikaze on the superior Russian navy in 1904-05.
Interested readers can google Manchuria at the turn of the 20th century for the historical strands of the last gasps of the Qings, the anti-Christian inspired Boxer Rebellion, and the rapacious international interventionists (Japan, Russia, Germany, France, and, yes, the United States) who drooled over carving out spheres of influence in the collapsing Empire of the Qings.
To the ice and snow. Officially launched on the 5th of January, Harbin actually begins carving ice sculptures as soon as the river water freezes. By Dong Bei’s own weather forecast of two weeks spring, two months summer, two days autumn, and the rest winter, that could be any day the weather thermometer hits below zero centigrade!
The monthlong ice and snow festival rivals those of other tourist destinations like Norway’s Ski Festival, Canada’s Quebec City Winter Carnival, and Japan’s Sapporo Snow Festival. (We were a couple of days late a decade ago when we hit a newly thawed Sapporo, and we lived in Saskatchewan in the late '70s, so Quebec was not much of a winter attraction. Norway? Our legs went two different directions the last time we attached them to skies downhill and flat prairie. We’ll pass.) Harbin, however, in July is a songfest, and ’Hapi days’ in August (Harbin beer) rivals Germany’s Oktoberfest. But January is all ice.
The Ice and Snow Festival is really more ice than snow. Precipitation is very limited as the cold is mostly dry but the carving of structures from the freeze has come to grab and grip artists’ imagination worldwide. An internationally represented group has been sawing and chipping on the ice ever since the festival began mid-'60s, placed on hold during the Cultural Revolution, then revived in mid-'80s until today’s 29th sculpting. This year’s rendering, along with the traditional copies of imagined Disney palaces, includes Angkor Wat’s shadows and any spired structure from around the world, from Moscow to Timbuktu!
If the sculpting now challenges artists in the same way as sand castles and other grainy structures are emerging as a beach art form on Saipan and elsewhere, the carving of the ice is emerging as a form of expressive art.
This is not just a result of the new commercial ethos of Harbin. In the Kogoryo era of which Yanbian is a remnant, there was the tradition of carving out ice in people’s homes in the dark of the winter to equip lanterns in them that made the surroundings glow in the dark from the refraction. On a Lunar New Year’s eve train from Shenyang to Tumen, Jilin two years ago, we saw many instances of ice lanterns on display outside residential dwellings and community nodes.
The Harbin ice festival (lots of photos in the Internet) reflects these two traditions; the contemporary one that sculpts the ice for today’s commercial and entertainment requirements, and also the ice lantern tradition that lingers in the practical reason that on dark winter nights, the wayfarers on the road, wherever they are heading, can use the assistance of a well-lit lantern.
Harbin’s ice, in the Shaolin Park and Songhuajiang, pedestrian-only Zhongyang Dajie and Stalin Park, or the miniature sculpture in front of the train station, are what those in the southern clime come to experience in the winter. When in China (Century Travel is still mulling earlier plans for a direct Saipan-Shenyang connection), particularly those from tropical isles, one would not want missing the Harbin ice!
Jaime Vergara, formerly a regular contributor in the Opinion section, is an adjunct foreign correspondent in China for Saipan Tribune.