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    Greater China
     Feb 27, 2008
The fun's going out of Chinese festivals
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - As celebrations for the lunar Chinese new year fade, many are casting a wary eye on government-mandated efforts to revive traditional culture through large orchestrated temple fairs and censored displays of folk religion.

Recent changes in the public holiday schedule, that favor traditional festivals at the expense of revolutionary dates from the communist era, have allowed people more time to enjoy folk festivities, which were once neglected or altogether banned.

But despite a record turnout at Beijing's big temples and parks, celebrations of the spring festival, or the Chinese new year, in the capital have been derided as unsophisticated and lacking in content.

"Any resemblance to the elaborate imperial sacrifices to heaven

and Earth of the past was lost in these caricature performances of poorly trained traveling troupes from the provinces," columnist Zhang Min wrote of his experiences at the capital's Temple of Earth in the Beijing News.

The exquisite works of artisans that once adorned Beijing temple fair stalls - Peking Opera masks, figurines made of painted dough and modeled on legendary figures, intricate kites and embroidered clothes - have now been replaced with "ubiquitous and cheap mass-produced trinkets", Zhang complained.

The feeling of disenchantment was shared by Chinese who have experienced celebrations of China's traditional festivals abroad.

"London's celebrations of Chinese new year feel more spontaneous and true to the origins of the festival than what we see now in Beijing," says Kevin Liao, who runs a China consultancy for British firms in London.

"There are no temples, but the festival is about being all together and everybody can join in. The crowds following the lion and dragon dances are big and merry. In Beijing you feel constantly as part of the audience and whether you like the performance or not you have to pay for it because all these temples now charge entrance fees."

A bittersweet nostalgia pervades reminiscences of old Beijing folk festivals. As an intrinsic part of the city's rich folk culture, temple fairs enjoyed enormous popularity with the old and young.

"Beijing was a city of grey; the houses were grey, the walls were grey and in the middle of the winter you would all of a sudden have this outburst of color and the noise of firecrackers," recalls Liu Ziwei, a retired teacher at Beijing Normal University.

Children would dress in red clothes to ward off evil spirits and follow their parents to the fairs in anticipation of that unrivalled medley of smells and noises. A succession of strolling musicians, storytellers, acrobats and strongmen would vie for people's attention at every corner. In the temple precincts, stalls would sell toffee crab apples, steaming broths, spicy noodles, grilled lamb skewers and bean porridge.

With food playing a great part in the festive atmosphere, this year even that turned out to be a disappointment. "The famous Beijing xioachi, or traditional snacks, were served out of huge buckets to people queuing up with plastic bowls, not unlike during the days of China's great famine," Zhang said.

Ironically, these grudges come at a time when the government, once fixated almost entirely on economic development, is awakening to the values of China's much-neglected festival traditions.

China's late leader Mao Zedong had tried to erase many traditional Chinese celebrations by ordering the destruction of religious sites and outlawing folk customs. Everything "old" - from marriages to funerals, from folk medicine to folk music - was targeted.

But as communist ideology gradually lost its influence in contemporary society, Chinese leaders after Mao have tried to fill the void with nationalistic appeals for people to take pride in the country's 5,000-year-old history and culture.

The government decision to trim the May Day holiday to one working day from three and add three traditional Chinese festivals as one-day public holidays followed a recent international black-eye for China. The country saw one of its most treasured events, the Dragon Boat Festival celebrated in June, nominated and later successfully listed as an intangible part of the cultural heritage of neighboring South Korea.

The listing angered Chinese scholars and officials who accused South Korea of brazenly encroaching on China's cultural heritage.

Since the 2005 UNESCO listing of the Dragon Boat festival, South Korea has applied to have its ritualized Confucius memorial ceremony listed as another unique cultural heritage and is reported ready with an application for the listing of "Chinese traditional medicine" as "Korean traditional medicine".

To Beijing's angst, other countries have also succeeded in claiming parts of cultural heritage that China considers as its own. Vietnam was successful in listing royal court music (yayue in China) as its unique cultural form while Cambodia has claimed the famous shadow puppets for itself.

"It is not enough to talk just about territorial integrity - China needs to safeguard its cultural sovereignty too," argues literary scholar Bai Gengsheng. "Unlike material culture which is traceable, intangible cultural heritage can be very contentious and we must design strategies to preserve China's heritage from being lost to other countries."

The way forward in cultural preservation is much debated. Zhang believes the government has simply left no room for traditional culture to exist alongside China's modernity, choosing instead to artificially showcase it on special occasions.

"For more than 100 years, Beijing's traditional snacks were made by hand in small shops, but these days such shops are deemed unsightly and either ordered to close down or pay very high fees," Zhang says. "Naturally, when produced by machines in a factory these snacks are only poor imitations of the real thing."

There have also been calls for the government to return the "right of interpretation" of traditional festivals to the public. "Patriotism is not a great substitute for having a meaningful traditional celebration," Guangdong academic Zhou Yun said in the Beijing Youth Daily.

(Inter Press Service with editing by Asia Times Online)

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