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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.
Scholars caution that many of the delights on display at fairs like this are far from authentic, even if the sentiments that draw people there are genuine.
Inside the packed Ditan park, food sellers and acrobats are squeezed in next to shooting galleries and even a man selling mops.
"People in the cities are nostalgic. They want to enjoy something historical, enjoy our traditional culture," said Ye Tao, an expert in folk culture based at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who is wary of re-enactments.
"In this commercialized culture you cannot just return to the original traditions. Folk things cannot be left completely unchanged or no one would go," he said. "But I went to Ditan temple fair once and I am never going back."
Among younger and often fervently nationalist Chinese, in a country where many shops are decked out with Santas for Christmas long before Chinese New Year lanterns go up, even modernized rites and temple fairs have a special attraction.
"Foreign influences get stronger and stronger and Chinese culture can seem weak, so this is a way of celebrating our heritage," said Zhang Chunbo, 36, who was at Ditan for the first time with his wife and six-year-old son.
Folk scholar Ye says there is still a real sense of old Beijing at places like the Dongyue Temple fair, where Daoist monks stroll along a walkway hung with thousands of red charms, tied up by visitors to bring fortune, success, health or happiness for the new year.
In one courtyard, trained mice climb ropes and ladders to reach miniature pagodas and temples, while an old man tells stories about their journeys -- they are hunting for a wife, visiting the in-laws or trying to find their father.
They may also be the best ambassadors for China's struggling folk traditions with a commercialized generation.
"Can you buy me one," one boy pleaded with his mother as a mouse scurried across a wire into a tiny temple of its own.
Editing by Bill Tarrant