The Li Art of the Wood Drill Fire: A Spark that Illuminates History

By Chen Shumin / HICN / Updated: 22:49,29-October-2021

Fire, originally a natural phenomenon, has becomeinextricably tied up with the civilization of humanity. It is used to cook meals, get warm in the chill of winter, illuminate dark nights, and much, much more. According to legend, in ancient times Suirenshi learned to make a wood drill fire from a crow.

Today, in some areas in Baoting, on south China’s Hainan island, there are still communities that retain the ancient art of making a wood drill fire with two sticks carved from Guest Tree wood. The Li people there see fire as a gift from heaven. Before making a fire, they usually pray, saying: "Heavens above, today I want to make a wood drill fire, give me fire!"

According to Wang Zhaoliang, a local Li expert in the craft, the main tools are the drill rod and base made of Guest Tree wood. A row of small round holes is carved in the base, each with a small groove to collect the wood chips and ash.

"The Guest Tree’s wooden core is similar to the wick of a candle, and has a low ignition point," Wang Zhaofang said. Guest Tree wood that’s been dried in the sun for one month to half a year is the perfect choice for success when making fire in this way, he added.

To make a wood drill fire, first place both feet on the base, place the drill rod into the small hole in the base, and twirl the drill rod between your hands at a high speed. "It looks simple, but it isn’t. When you hear the wood thrum as you twist, it means that you are doing it correctly. If you hear squeaking, you will probably fail.." Wang Zhaoliang, brother of Wang Zhaofang, demonstrated the process of making a wood drill fire.

After a few moments, wisps of white smoke can be seen rising up from the point of friction, and the smell of burning permeates the air. Wang Zhaoliang casually picked up a leaf, and dumped the the black wood chips and ash from the groove in the base onto it, then onto a clump of sun-dried coconut husk, quickly cupping his mouth and blowing out a steady stream of air to help the fire ignite.

"It's not just a simple skill, but sometimes it’s vital for survival." A local recalled his happy childhood with his family making wood drill fires to roast groundnuts. Now, he takes his son to the mountains to camp and learn to make wood drill fires. "On the one hand, I hope my son can get close to nature, as well as learn this skill to pass on our tradition," he said.

In 2015, Tsinghua University brought students on a trip to Baoting to learn wilderness survival skills, and each student was issued a set of tools and had their modern equipment confiscated. "Matches get damp in the mountains, so if they want to cook anything, they have to make a wood drill fire. Finally every student learned how to do it," Wang Zhaoliang said.

"We have 30 families in the village, and every family has some members who know how to make a wood drill fire, including some youngsters." In 2019, Wang Zhaofang also set up a team in the village to call on locals to learn the skill of making a wood drill fire.

In 2013, experts from Hainan University decided to write a book on the art of making a wood drill fire, with the help of local experts from Wang’s team who explained and demonstrated the art for them. This will help keep the ancient art alive for future generations.

"This skill is a crystallization of human wisdom, a cultural treasure handed down from our ancient ancestors." Wang Zhaofang says that cultural skills are the spiritual power of a nation's heritage and an important witness to the evolution of human civilization, and he hopes that more young people will master this skill to pass on this tradition to more generations.

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