Festive fun at Beijing’s temple fairs

  • Colours of China
  • Monday, 05 Mar 2018

X: Performers re-enacting a Qing Dynasty ceremony during a temple fair at the Temple of Earth in Ditan Park, Beijing. — Reuters

TEMPLE fairs, known as miao hui in Mandarin, have long been a part of the Spring Festival in Beijing.

These carnival-like events can be traced back to more than 1,000 years ago, when people used to visit temples to pray for a good year ahead.

And as you know, the No.1 strategy in business is to go for the crowds. So, vendors started operating at these places during that time of the year.

Today, miao hui in Beijing are usually held at parks near temples, amusement parks or tourist sites. Only a handful are still held on the streets.

These fairs feature performances, traditional crafts such as paper cutting and sugar figurine blowing, and traders selling an assortment of goods such as paintings, pinwheels, handicrafts and food.

With most city folks back in their hometowns to celebrate the Spring Festival, the festive mood in Beijing was not as happening as I thought it would be.

The lack of festive decorations at the malls, corporate buildings and commercial areas could be one of the reasons.

There were also no lion dance troupes performing house-to-house or roaming the streets with their loud percussion music.

So, I guess going to the temple fairs was one way to get a taste of the joyous atmosphere, apart from watching the Spring Festival gala shows on television.

There are dozens of temple fairs, big and small, in Beijing.

In most places, the fairs are only held for several days, starting from the first day of Chinese New Year. Each of them has a different theme, usually associated with the history and culture of the area.

I had picked three temple fairs to visit, but ended up going to only one because I was traumatised by the massive crowd at that first fair.

Still, I’m glad I went, having seen temple fairs depicted in many Chinese costume dramas.

I went to the one at the Temple of Earth, which is said to be the most popular. There were more than 10 ticket booths, but I still had to queue for about 15 minutes for a ticket, which cost 10 yuan (RM6.20).

This temple was where the emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties prayed to the God of the Earth for blessings. One of the fair’s highlights was a show that re-enacted the royal rituals.

There were also exhibitions, folk dances, magic shows, clown performances and cultural displays.

I could only walk around briefly as I was unable to squeeze through the crowd to see clearly what the vendors were selling. Taking my own sweet time to pick up one or two items was out of the question.

During the Spring Festival period, fireworks and firecrackers are not entirely banned in Beijing. They are only prohibited within the Fifth Ring Road.

There are five ring roads – namely the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth – surrounding the Forbidden City, with the wall of this former palace considered the first loop. The areas beyond the Fifth Ring are commonly regarded as the outskirts.

The ring roads are also simple reference points for estimating property prices.

On the outskirts, the district councils identify their own restriction areas such as those near schools, historical sites and hazardous zones. The rest are green areas between 7pm and midnight.

The ban on explosives in the city is said to be a result of a fire that razed the nearly completed 34-storey Beijing Television Cultural Centre, a cultural complex owned by China Central Television, on Yuanxiao Festival (known as Chap Goh Meh in Malaysia) in 2009.

The blaze was caused by fireworks that were set off to celebrate the first full moon of the lunar year and the end of the festive period. The fire was so intense that it took six hours to put out the blaze.

If you happen to be in China during Chap Goh Meh, which fell last Friday, don’t think of throwing mandarin oranges into lakes or rivers, and praying for your Miss or Mr Right to pick up the fruits.

The Chinese do not do this, at least not in Beijing.

Instead, the Chinese from the northern region eat yuan xiao, while those from the southern part consume tang yuan.

Both look the same and are made of the same ingredients – dough of glutinous rice flour, while the filling can be anything from sesame, peanut, red bean, chocolate and red dates to meat or vegetables.

Tang yuan is made by rolling the dough into balls that are stuffed with the filling.

As for yuan xiao, the filling is pressed, hardened and cut into cubes. The cubes are dipped in water and rolled in a container with the rice flour. These steps are repeated until the rice balls reach the desired size.

I bought both types to try (the frozen ones, of course) and to me, they both tasted good.

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