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
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
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."
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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