Thousands flock to Beijing's rejuvenated temple fairs

From shadow plays to acrobatic feats, traditional art forms are finding new admirers

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-19 07:31
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An performer walks on stilts at the Taoist Dongyue Temple fair in Beijing. [JIANG DONG/CHINA DAILY]

Acrobatic skills

Major temple fairs held during the holidays also highlighted Beijing's history and culture. Changdian temple fair held around Hepingmen and Hufangqiao streets, dates back over 400 years, according to the Beijing government. As one of the biggest and oldest temple fairs in the capital, it attracts a large number of people with stalls selling old books, antiques, traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

The fair is located near Tianqiao commercial area, a former hub for folk art and small businesses. Today, folk artists still gather at Changdian temple fair to display their skills, such as xiangsheng, or crosstalk, a comedic act that is performed as a dialogue between two performers or as a solo monologue, pingshu, a form of storytelling, and martial arts.

Zhu Yi is head of the publicity department of the Beijing Folklore Museum located at the Taoist Dongyue Temple in Chaoyang district. The museum organizes the Beijing Folk Art Festival, which is in its 13th year and part of the temple's fair. It saw strong attendances this year.

"The number of people (coming to the temple fair) broke records attracting over 10,000 visitors every day," said Zhu.

Apart from lion and dragon dances, the fair this year also featured zhongfan, a flagpole balancing act with amazing acrobatic feats. Acrobats throw and balance bamboo poles 10-meters long and weighing about 50 kilograms, using their hands, backs, jaws and foreheads. The poles have large flags decorated with images of clouds and dragons attached to them.

Zhongfan originated in the Tang and Song dynasties and was traditionally the major attraction at temple fairs, Zhu said.

In 2007, the museum helped revive interest in the art form by organizing a skills competition, which included zhongfan, for acrobatic troupes in Beijing. Thirteen teams displaying expertise in lion dancing, zhongfan and gaoqiao, or walking on stilts, stood out from the competition. They were organized into a performance troupe by the museum.

"During this year's temple fair, we took those folk artists to perform not only at Dongyue Temple but also at four different spots near the temple," Zhu said. "They attracted a large number of admirers as they paraded for about two kilometers along streets while showcasing their skills."

During the pandemic-induced hiatus, the museum put folk art performances online.

However, while it was a good compromise it did not match the immediacy of watching a live performance, Zhu said. "When you are watching a show live you feel like you are a part of the story. The feeling is stronger during Spring Festival."

For the upcoming Lantern Festival, which marks the end of Spring Festival and falls on Feb 24, Dongyue Temple will continue its fair. Visitors can enjoy viewing colorful lanterns and eating treats such as yuanxiao, glutinous rice balls with sweet fillings.

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