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China’s iconic cooking vessel is forged in a symphony of fire and steam

Lying in the shadow of the majestic Huangshan Mountain, the village of Shichuan in Anhui province is renowned for its bucolic stone bridges and temples. But don’t be fooled by its sleepy appearance: The village awakens to the firing of dozens of furnaces before 6 a.m. each morning.

Thrift drives this early start: Electricity is discounted before 8 a.m., an essential cost-cutter for these family-run foundries that need to generate a lot of heat—melting iron requires temperatures of over 1,000 degrees Celsius. Perhaps it is this mix of diligence and economy that has allowed Shichuan’s ancient wok-casting method to persist for centuries in the face of mass-produced competition.

An employee pours hot water out in the while working at the Chinese wok factory.

At the start of the day, workers boil water to make the sand molds

Occasionally touted as “China’s fifth great invention,” cast iron’s fiery origins have been traced by archeologists back to the sixth century BCE. Due to its importance in weaponry, the government held a monopoly on iron’s sale from the Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 BCE) through to the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220 CE). Since then, iron cooking woks have been recorded in the kitchens of the nobility—the seventh century’s female emperor Wu Zetian (武则天) was especially fond of stir-fries—but weren’t readily available to commoners until the Song dynasty (960 – 1279). It’s no coincidence that the Song was also a culinary golden age in Chinese history, when the first restaurants appeared and people began dining out all night long.

An employee cools down a newly fashioned Chinese wok.

A newly fashioned wok is set aside to cool down and harden

Characterized by rounded bottoms and thin sides, which retain heat and allow food to be stirred easily, woks have become synonymous with Chinese cuisine. In 1999, Chinese-American author Grace Young coined the term wok hei (镬气), or “breath of the wok,” an elusive quality that supposedly harmonizes the flavors in Chinese cooking. The workings of one of Shichuan’s foundries can feel similarly mysterious—long experience allows workers to add water to the clay molds based on sheer instinct for the day’s temperature and humidity, and protective gear feels irrelevant when these craftsmen expertly dart around their craters of fire, molten iron, and steam.

Factory employee's transfer a newly formed Chinese wok to a new location.

The molten iron retains heat while the wok is being transported from the bottom mold to the top mold

Chinese factory employees show how molding a Chinese wok comes together.

The top and bottom molds must match up perfectly in order to cast a wok that is often of even thickness and does not leak

Chinese factory employees transfer molten iron into moulds.

Workers get ready to transport molten iron to be poured into moulds

Two factory workers work with black iron.

Black iron can be more dangerous than red, as it's hard to tell how hot it is

Factory workers carefully watch as molten iron is poured.

Sparks fly as the iron melts over extreme heat

Chinese wok-making employees take a break and eat lunch.

Foundries are a high-paying local industry, as skilled workers are needed to make a successful product.

Photographs by Meng Qingchun (孟庆春)


“All In a Days Wok”is a story from our issue,Dawn of the Debt.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

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Hatty Liu is the managing editor of The World of Chinese.