Richer China looks to past for holiday fun

Wed Jan 28, 2009 5:31am EST
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By Emma Graham-Harrison

BEIJING (Reuters) - Jostling crowds stare as a young man in imperial robes mounts an altar and kowtows to tablets representing his ancestors and several holy mountains, before offering up silk and symbolic sacrificial animals.

But drifting over the solemn ceremony are the sounds of stand-up comedians and a break-dance routine, reminders that the man is just an actor pulling crowds into the biggest of Beijing's temple fairs, traditional entertainment for the Lunar New Year.

After 30 years of economic reform, China is rich enough that the hunger for modernity among the emerging middle classes is being tempered by a growing nostalgia for the past.

"This gives us a chance to see what traditional Chinese culture was like, how the emperor worshipped," said 70-year-old Zang Wenquan, an atheist computer scientist watching the sacrificial ceremony for the second time in as many days.

The imperial ceremony at Beijing's Ditan, or Temple to the Earth, would traditionally have been performed at the summer solstice and closed to the public, a small onsite museum said.

But the audience is largely oblivious to anachronisms and the park's managers have tapped into a hunger for a more tangible connection with the 5,000 years of history that Chinese children are taught they can lay claim to.

"The sacrificial ceremony is our most popular attraction," said Cao Qi, spokeswoman for the fair, which she says draws more than one million visitors during the week it lasts.

Once temple fairs were held year round at the capital's hundreds of shrines to honor different deities. Now they have been modernized and are largely clustered around the Lunar New Year, when the whole country gets three days off.   Continued...

<p>Men, dressed in traditional costumes, dance during a Chinese folk art performance at a temple fair celebrating Chinese lunar New Year, in Beijing January 28, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Lee</p>