playwithfire8
Photo Credit: Huang Ruide
TRADITIONAL CULTURE

Flames of Fortune: A Chinese Village’s Fiery Leap into the Lunar New Year

The people of Zhengpan celebrate the Lunar New Year by charging into flames for good fortune

Leaping over bonfires to ward off bad luck is a common festival practice in rural areas of northern China, as well as in many cultures around the world. But in Zhengpan village, located in eastern Guangdong, locals take it to the next level by daringly charging in and out of a raging blaze while carrying a divine statue.

On the 13th day of the Lunar New Year, thick stacks of hay are paved over a ten-by-five-meter area in the village square of Zhengpan. Thousands of both locals and tourists from near and far gather every year for the spectacle, casually referred to as “playing with fire” or 耍火 by the locals. Villagers believe that the ritual is derived from local folklore. Legend has it that the village went into a battle with outsiders in ancient times. On the brink of defeat, a deity known as the “Lord Commander(指挥爷)” manifested to help win the fight. In honor of him, the village decided to recreate the intense battlefield scene every year, reliving the victory.

The ritual starts with a ceremony at the ancestral hall where villagers pay their respects and pray for good fortune in the new year. While spectators gather at the village square, a parade unfolds with people carrying the statue of the “Lord Commander” through the village, accompanied by a simple band of drums and gongs.

Then comes the highlight of the event at the village square, where participants, primarily young men, dash through the burning field unprotected. To outsiders, the spectacle may appear extremely dangerous, even though the performers are drenched in water beforehand. Villagers view this daring run through the flames as a cleansing ritual, intended to burn away evil and misfortune. It is also said that this act honors the “Lord Commander,” a playful deity who, according to locals, would not return to his temple until he has had his fill of fun. In any case, the locals claim that no one has ever been injured in this ceremony—no doubt a blessing by the fun-loving, fearless god.

Photography by Huang Ruide (黄瑞德)

Villagers pray at their ancestral hall for a prosperous year to come, Lunar new year celebration fire ritual

Villagers pray at their ancestral hall for a prosperous year to come

Around 9 pm, the statue of Lord Commander on his sedan arrived at the square after a parade through the village, Lunar new year celebration fire ritual

Around 9 pm, the statue of Lord Commander on his sedan arrives at the square after a parade through the village

Locals lit up the thick stacks of hay, recreating the scene of a burning battle filed

Locals lit up thick stacks of hay, recreating the scene of a burning battlefield

The drum and gong players charged across the fiery field first

The drum and gong players charge across the fiery field first

Two young men carrying the statue of the Lord Commander soon followed

Two young men carrying the statue of the Lord Commander soon follow

The ritual is in full swing when the statue is taken off the sedan and carried in turn by different young men to run through the flames several times

The ritual reaches its climax when the statue is removed from the sedan and, in turn, carried by various young men, each dashing through the flames

Participants have to keep their move fast to avoid getting burnt

Participants have to keep their move fast to avoid getting burnt

Some skilled participants intentionally slow down their moves, eliciting screams and cheers from the crowd

Some skilled participants intentionally slow down their moves, eliciting screams and cheers from the crowd

Young men are fighting to carry the statue through fire, believing it would bring them good luck

Young men fight to carry the statue through fire, believing it would bring them good luck

Participants soak themselves in water before charging into the fire

Participants soak themselves in water before charging into the fire

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