If you’ve been in Beijing during the Chinese New Year festivities, you know that after a few days of consuming delicious traditional New Year dishes, one must visit a temple fair, or miao hui.
My first reaction to the Ditan Park fair was complete sensory overload. From the moment I entered Ditan Park’s south entrance, I became entangled in waves of fair-goers, pungently sweet smells from food vendors’ stalls, and rainbows of bright trinkets being sold on the sides of the park’s lantern-lined paths. Beyond the fair’s sights and sounds, I was intrigued by the vast array of entertainment at Ditan. From traditional dance performances to arcade-like games, the fair really had it all. A minute after walking by 50 dancers performing a time-honored dance, I was invited by techno music and bright posters to try my hand at mini basketball.
By contrast, the Dongyue Temple Fair offered a quiet and mellow look at Chinese New Year tradition. Stalls outside of the temple gates were quite lively, but the temple environment itself was very relaxed. Vendors watched fair-goers calmly stroll through the temple, giving equal time to the traditional architecture and modern amusements. A small stage in the back hosted young acrobats who were happy to showcase their talents to a small but dedicated crowd.
At both of these fairs, the intersection of traditional culture versus modern entertainment and exploration of heritage versus mass consumerism manifest itself in curious ways. Vendors sold sticks of tanghulu – hawthorn fruit candy – not to be eaten, but to be admired. They were plastic. I was similarly confused when, during the acrobatic show, Chinese music was abruptly replaced with something that might be heard in a club.
Hailed as events displaying China’s time-honored culture, modern temple fairs of this type are thus interesting to witness. One has to wonder: where does tradition end and consumerism begin? What is more important at these fairs? On the surface, it seems that the purchasing of tiger paws, overpriced chuan’r (meat skewers) and game tokens has eclipsed more traditional elements of these fairs.
However, I do not believe that it is so easy to make this call. The dancers’ stage was set up in a large, open space so that hoards of people could witness the exciting performances (I personally really enjoyed this aspect of the Ditan fair). Those who watched the acrobats at Dongyue marveled at performers’ skills, clapped and cheered wildly, and in short, were mesmerized. Children holding toy cars and pinwheels from their game successes seemed equally entranced by the shows that held their parents’ and grandparents’ attention.
From my brief experiences this week at temple fairs, I think that there is still something in these events that is deeply rooted in China’s past. One might say they are historical events with modern characteristics, or mass playgrounds with traditional pretenses. Either way, they reflect a morphing China that walks a cultural tightrope between past and present.
Happy New Year – and with that, a new, evolving genre of temple fair.
Photo credit: IB Times