Chinese gourmet show brings fame to iron pan, shedding light on a real cultural inheritance
Zhangqiu Blacksmith Photo:
A popular documentary on the history of eating and cooking has recently brought unexpected fame for handcrafted iron pans in east China's Shandong province, making the formerly outmoded product once again a sought-after item both online and offline.

Although the pan is depicted in the TV series as boasting traditional workmanship, some media sources dug deeper, questioning it may be hyped by the online shops' marketing strategy.

A Bite of China season 3, a beautifully made food TV program, has dedicated a full six minutes to Zhangqiu iron pan. Aired during the spring festival period by CCTV, China's national broadcaster, it's reported that within half an hour, all the stock of the product's Taobao flagship store had been sold out. And in a couple of days, it received orders for over one hundred thousand of pans.

“A Zhangqiu iron pan will go through 12 working procedures, 1,000 degree heat, and 36,000 times of hammering,” said the documentary. “Compared with iron pans stamped out by machines, handcrafted pans have better thermal conductivity. And through constant hammering for tens of thousands of times, bottom of the pans feature high density and so food would not stick.”

As A Bite of China introduced, unlike its modern non-stick counterparts with hi-tech coating, iron pans use techniques passed on from one generation to the next. With no chemicals used in its production, dishes cooked in it would be more healthy. Many Chinese people think highly of traditional dietary habits, and so rushed to snatch one such cookware.

Zhangqiu is a district under the jurisdiction of Jinan, the capital of East China's Shandong province. The casting industry in the area has a long history. In the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), the business first burgeoned due to its abundance in mineral resources, like coal, iron, bauxite and clay, all of which are raw materials for smelting and casting business. By the end of the Yuan dynasty (AD1271-1368), Zhangqiu had already become famous for being the “village of blacksmith”.

Now, the product has developed a successful brand story. According to the documentary, around the year 2000, local blacksmiths' shops had been driven out of business due to the rising popularity of modern cookware. In 2009, young entrepreneur Feng Quanyong opened a special online shop to sell iron pans. He registered trademarks, while applying for the related techniques to be listed as intangible cultural heritage.

By 2015, with the booming online retail sector, Feng decided to 'upgrade' his flagship store. He came to Liu Zimu, who claimed to be an “inheritor” of the local casting technique. Liu thus collected and compiled stories of Zhangqiu's blacksmiths' shops and put them online.

It's reported by Qi Lu Evening News, a local newspaper, that every pan from Feng's stores was handmade with prices ranging from 200 to 1,000 yuan. Before the story was told by A Bite of China, Tong Sheng Yong and Zhen San Huan, the two iron pan brandnames founded by Feng, have already gained some fame online as one of the most “unexpected” best-seller Taobao items.

Liu Zimu is now a partner of Feng's shops while he also owns an iron pan factory in Zhangqiu to supply for the shops—Zhen Shan Huan and Tong Sheng Yong. “We could only produce several thousand of the pans annually. Unable to complete all the orders and in order to guarantee quality of our brands, we have temporarily shut down the two online shops,” he told the media.

“The pans are hammered out bit by bit. We could not rush it. The product is connected to the fame of ironmasters who signed a contract with us and inheritance of the techniques.”

The Chinese media reported on March 1 that the product standard for Zhangqiu iron pan had been rolled out. The Jinan Tong Sheng Yong Cookware Co. Ltd, the company owned by Feng Quanyong, drafted the criteria, specifying the definition, technical requirements and inspection method of the pans. The draft was then deliberated by the Shandong Institute of Standardization and released through the online platform of General Administration of Quality Supervision, China's national bureau of quality inspection.

The craze for iron pans is indicative of Chinese people's pursuit of an idyllic style in modern lives, while many netizens also expressed their disapproval of the new fashion. “It doesn't make sense to leave aside a string of big brandnames with quality assurance while vying for some unproven product which claims to be purely natural,” posted a netizen, whose comment was liked by hundreds of other Internet users.

Some media found that it's the first time the Zhangqiu iron pan rose to prominence, even among local residents of the area. A reporter with the Beijing News who happens to hail from Zhangqiu wrote a commentary, saying he's confused, and being a native, he had never heard of the so-called “Zhangqiu iron pan” before the documentary came out.

“I also asked my parents, relatives and classmates from middle and high school. They said they had also never heard of it, not before the incredible cookware had come to light through A Bite of China,” he wrote.

According to the reporter, local Zhangqiu people do use iron pans, although their pans are definitely not as magical as the documentary advocated. “It is quite heavy and easily gets rusty and the food always sticks if over-cooked.”

On the other hand, the commentary noted it is Zhangqiu Blacksmith that really enjoys fame. Based on official statistics, in the 1950s, among all of the 730,000 local residents, 380,000 worked as blacksmith. The blacksmiths' shops mainly produced farm tools, iron nails and horseshoes. Iron pan was never one of their major works.

In 2008, “Life Style and Customs of Blacksmith in Zhangqiu” was successfully listed as the provincial-level intangible cultural heritage. Chen Jingbo, the director of Shandong Intangible Cultural Inheritance Protection Center, told Qi Lu Evening News, the book Zhangqiu's Blacksmith composed by Ming Zhaoyi should be especially thanked for the success.

Ming Zhaoyi, now aged over 80, had travelled all across the northern regions of Yangtze River when he was young, making a living by being blacksmith. After retirement, he helped the local chronicles' office to record and compile life stories of Zhangqiu blacksmith, providing valuable reference for study of the local industry.

“The forging techniques inherited from ancestors are worth being passed on and it's smart to combine traditional workmanship with modern business mode. However, if one product of an online business is too hyped up and overly publicized, the true inheritance of local characteristics may be ignored and even compromised,” wrote the Beijing News commentary. 

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