China didn’t go well for me at first. I lost my fiancée, my job, and was struggling to adjust to life in a country so unfamiliar to me. I had all but decided to leave. This is the reason that I stayed.
It was around 2014, and I was still trying to get used to the social scene in Shanghai. I had decided to go to the opening of Agora, a then new coworking space in Shanghai. It wasn’t really that interesting to me in the end – I had an office job and wasn’t really planning to go independent.
But it was here that I met Sven. He was an older man, wearing a funny hat and constantly talking about football. When he wasn’t talking about football, he would talk about bringing Burning Man to Shanghai. I had no idea what he meant by this, but from what I could tell it was some kind of festival?
When I got home I looked up this “Burning Man” that he kept talking about. I came to the same conclusion that everyone who knows nothing about the culture comes to: it’s a hippie drug festival held in a desert. “Good luck with that, mate”, I thought, and promptly forgot the whole idea.
Skip forward about a year and my life had changed a fair amount. I was recently single, lost my job, and planning to leave China. I had managed a better social life, mainly spending time with people who ran The Mansion, a local night club that ran as a house party in an actual mansion.
I was drinking heavily during this time, and on one of these nights I had a conversation with one of the owners of the club. To this day I do not remember the conversation, but I remember that I had written something down.
The next morning I pulled a piece of paper out of my wallet. All it had written on it was a time and a place. I had nothing else going on so I decided to go. Later that day I found myself in a room with a group of strangers. Among those strangers was a man wearing a funny hat, talking about football.
This was my first Dragon Burn Meeting.
During the meeting I learned that I had been wrong about Sven’s idea. They had already run a Burn in 2014 and it had been really successful. They had really brought Burning Man to China.
Afterwards I was invited to get more involved. I had nothing else going on so I decided to join them. I thought it would be cool to run a “festival”. My life became a series of meetings, fundraisers, and film screenings.
One of the films they showed was a documentary called Spark. I must have seen this movie dozens of times by now, but the first time I saw it I realised that I was wrong about the “hippie drug festival”. Burning Man was something else. Something I had to be a part of.
I kept going to meetings and attended events, slowly learning how things were being run. I didn’t get involved too much with the planning and logistics at first, but I did volunteer to help with the effigy.
Before we went to the site we had arranged to do a test build. Basically we would put it together to make sure we knew how to do it, and that there would be no problems when we built it on site. We went to the factory that had cut the wood for us, and built it outside.
It turned into a fun day, figuring out how the effigy actually fit together. The factory workers even stepped up to help us, since they were curious what it was going to look like in the end. After all was done we took it apart again and packed it, ready for transport to the site.
Another thing I got involved with before the Burn was an art installation named Tinseltown. The idea was to have a cube that people could walk into, giving a feeling of being in another world.
It took forever to set up all the tinsel, making sure it was attached. It would have been a long, boring day were it not for the company. Of course, we figured out a way we could have made the installation much faster, but only when we were nearly done with the whole thing.
The actual event was to be held in a site in Anji. I had volunteered for the build team, so I met with other volunteers and we rode a bus to the site.
In a bamboo forest, next to a lake, we would build the first Burn I ever attended. Most of the people that attended the effigy test build had other things they needed to do, so I ended up leading a team of volunteers in building the effigy. We were proud when we had put it all together. For the rest of the Burn we were able to say that we had built the centre-piece of the Burn.
Tinseltown was set up nearby, as were several other art projects that artists had brought to the Burn. DJs set up their equipment, a free bar was built, as well as a few communal tented areas. This would be the smallest Dragon Burn, with less than 200 participants.
What followed was the best couple of days I’d had in China up to that point. Art installations, performances, drum circles, and DJ performances filled the entire weekend. What made it special was that no one had been paid to be there. Everything we had, from alcohol, to music, to art, we had brought ourselves. Simply because we wanted to share something with others.
The weekend was bookended with a literal burn. Several pieces of burnable art filled the effigy, as well as a large amount of kindling. Fuel was added to help it burn.
When we set it alight it burned fast. The shape of the effigy created a fire tornado inside that shot straight up. For a moment we feared we would set the forest on fire. Thankfully volunteers kept it under control while still allowing it to burn.
We all stood in a circle watching, feeling the warmth of the fire on our faces. This was the moment that I made the choice to stay in China. It was a rare moment when I felt like I was where I was meant to be, and knew what I was meant to do.
I ended up staying in China for ten years. It became my home, and the Burn became my family. I have since attended many other Burns, including the Nevada Regional. Having left China, I find myself at a crossroads. I still help to maintain the website, but I have handed off most of my responsibilities to those in China.
I am on a road not yet travelled. I don’t know what direction to go, but I’m being drawn back toward the Burn. Back toward my home. I don’t know where I am meant to be right now. But I have a pretty good idea.