There is a family of five in Harbin, capital of northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, who all share the same interest -- a love of ice sculpture.
Though not professionals, the five have enjoyed themselves over the years in the city's annual ice and snow festival and have won numerous awards with their creations over the past two decades.
This year, they again won the "Best Originality" award for their sculpture celebrating the successful launching of the Shenzhou-V spaceship.
"Now I have plenty of time to study the art of ice sculpture," said Zhang Dexiang, 60, the father of the group. He was speaking from their new two-room apartment in downtown Harbin, after retiring last year as headmaster of the No. 2 Middle School attached to Harbin Electronic Machinery Factory.
Zhang said he wanted to contribute more effort to the art after witnessing the amazing changes that ice sculpting has brought to the city.
There is a huge home-made desk occupying a corner of the room, upon which a number of ice sculpture sketches are spread out for scrutiny.
There are also tools such as knives, awls and files. A cabinet by the wall displays various certificates and trophies, recording the family's past glories. Pictures of sculptures they've made over the years often arouse the interest of visitors.
"I have a special passion for ice and snow," said Zhang, a native of Harbin. He even named his two sons "Xue Song" and "Xue Tao," the former meaning "pine in the snow" and the latter, "whistling of the wind in a snowy winter."
The family love spending their spare time on frozen Songhua River in the winter, where they enjoy many games on the ice.
"It was my wife who encouraged me to try ice and snow sculpting," Zhang recalled.
Back in 1984 when he was then an art teacher in the middle school, Zhang, his wife Zhu Qing and their two sons went to Zhaolin Park one weekend. They came across an ice sculpting contest.
"I was moved by the unique creations by the participants," Zhu recalled. "I said to my husband, 'why don't you try it?"'
Zhang agreed to give it a try.
The first work he made was of a bubble-blowing child, which won him an honorary award.
"Though it was a trivial prize, it piqued my interest," Zhang said, who has since fallen in love with this art form.
He has moved on from simple and plain figures to three-dimensional ones.
After his sons reached school age, Zhang decided to take them with him whenever there was a competition. The two young boys showed great curiosity and wanted to have a try.
"I still remember the days when my younger brother and I went to join the carving," said Zhang Xuesong, who is now 30, and also an art teacher at the same school as his father.
"It was very hard, but great fun," the young man said of their early years.
The two boys won the first prize in 1991 at a local ice and snow sculpture competition for middle school students. With the theme being environmental protection, they carved a stump of a tree and an axe, symbolizing the impact of tree-cutting.
"To take care of my sons, I had to be on the spot," said Zhu Qing, 57, "I later developed an interest in ice sculpting, too."
She also picked up the awl and file to join the family work.
"My brother and I always feel so grateful for our parents," said Zhang Xuesong, adding that it was their parents who showed them the charm of the wonderful snow kingdom.
In 1993, the family made their debut at the first Harbin ice sculpture competition for families. Their work was of an eagle in flight which won an honorary prize.
At a subsequent competition, the family won third prize for their snow carving of a girl of Miao ethnic group.
"Whenever we saw the first snow of the winter, all the members of the family would be excited," Zhang said.
They would talk and work on that year's project.
In 1999 the family welcomed a new member to the team as Ji Lili, wife of Zhang Xuesong, joined in the fun. She also enjoys the family fun and has improved her skills quickly.
On the first day of 2001, Zhang Xuetao, the younger son who was at the time studying garden design in Germany, flew home to take part in that year's competition. The team he led won first prize in the Third Youth Snow Sculpture Competition.
In January, when the main competition was held in Zhaolin Park, Zhang Xuetao frequently made phone calls discussing the work the family was going to do.
"He gave us encouragement and ideas," said Ji Lili.
"I'm so lucky that I became part of the family," Ji said. "It is a happy, harmonious family."
"It is the snow and ice that have molded us together," said Zhang Dexiang.
Not only do the snow and ice tie the Zhang family together, but many other people as well, both from home and abroad.
The ice sculpture competition is only part of the China Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival, which has been considered one of the world's great snow festivals ever since its debut in 1985.
"It is a joyous event which includes ice and snow sculpting shows and competitions, ski events, concerts and business forums," said Harbin Vice-Mayor Shi Wenqing.
Over 100,000 people have visited the city since the festival started in early January, according to reports from the Heilongjiang Daily.
But of all the activities, the ice sculpting contests are always the highlight of the gala.
"Without the participation of so many excellent, talented ice sculptors from around the world each year, the festival would become monotonous," said Wang Jingfu, a noted local architect and an expert in the study of ice sculpting.
"They fill the city with endless creativity and beauty."
(China Daily February 12, 2004)