Ice carving, a seasonal art in the far north of China, is also called "ice lanterns" and has its origin in local life. To prevent lights from being blown out by the winter wind, people started long, long ago to use hollowed ice blocks as lantern bulbs, giving the art its primitive form.
The citizens of Harbin, capital of the northernmost Heilongjiang Province, put on the first "ice lantern show" in the winter of 1963. By means of moulds, they made various ice lanterns in which they lighted candles. It proved a success and an established custom. Since then, an "ice festival" has been held every year lasting from New Year's Day to the traditional Lantern Festival (about mid-February), with the scale growing ever larger and the skills more and more perfected. Apart from the usual lanterns, pavilions, terraces, bridges and towers are built in ice to decorate the landscapes formed by sparkling mountains, crystal trees, glistening birds and animals, fish swimming in transparent pools. Ice sculpturing is also found to be an artistic form suitable for reproducing scenes of well-known dramas and stories of science fiction often seen at the festival. Some works are of colossal dimensions a pagoda may be built of up to 200 huge ice blocks, and it makes an impressive sight when lit at night by hundreds of built-in coloured lamps. The ice show, with its translucent works and sparkling lights, reminds visitors of the fabled emerald and crystal palace of the legendary Dragon King.
The main material for ice sculpture is obtained from the rivers. With the mercury constantly kept down at minus 20-30C in winter, the waters in the north provide an inexhaustible supply of ice. It is first sawn by workmen into blocks, and then the sculptors will put them to different uses according to thickness, strength and transparency. A large work is usually assembled of many component pieces.