Temple fairs have been a part of daily life in Beijing for hundreds of years becoming especially popular during the Qing dynasty. Scattered all over the city so residents could easily make their way to the nearest, some fairs were held as regularly as every fortnight. Between stalls perhaps hawking the kind of tat we all find so difficult to resist (especially during the holiday season) were opera and acrobatic troupes, puppet shows and cross-talk (the Qing equivalent of a stand-up comedy act).
The Spring Festival fairs were, of course, a much bigger deal. Back in the day, it was the Changdian fair that raked in the crowds, with long sticks of sweetened hawthorn fruits and visiting opera stars guaranteed. To get a real taste of the Chinese New Year or just to get outside, we’ve picked out a whole range of outdoor festivities for today’s fair-goer.
Dongyue Miao (东岳庙)
Housing the Beijing Folk Customs Museum, this temple (originally built in 1319) is host to one of Beijing’s most traditional Spring Festival fairs. The most recent version of its temple fair kicked off in 1999.
Themed this year ‘soaring golden dragon’, like any good old fair it will feature drum troops, Chinese opera, acrobatics and cross-talk shows will provide plenty of noise and entertainment.
The fair will also feature an exhibition of antique Chinese boxes. Not necessarily one for thrill-seekers out there, this should be pretty fascinating with genuine pieces dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties. ‘But why an exhibition on boxes?’ You may well ask. Since the Chinese word for box (he) sounds like the word for harmony, the exhibition is all part of the plan to ring in an auspicious New Year. There will also be an exhibition of the Chinese zodiac beasties in various guises, with no prizes for guessing which animal will be taking top spot.
Wooden puppets, block puzzles and a whole bunch of old-time games will keep the little ones busy and you’ll also be able to choose from a host of Chinese snacks such as lvdagun (a kind of bean flour roll) and wandouhuang (yellow pea flour cakes).
The temple will be giving out couplets written on the spot by local calligraphers and holding talks on traditional Chinese etiquette.
Dongyue Temple, 8.30am-midday on Monday 16 and 8.30am-4.30pm from Monday 23 to Saturday 28.
Chaoyang International Fengqing festival (朝阳国际风情节)
Principally catering to the laowai crowd, the fair is celebrating it’s tenth anniversary this year. Not actually held in a temple, you’ll find it inside Chaoyang park. The entertainers will also be of international stock, including dance troupes from Holland, the UK, France, Greece and Russia. Look out for Grecian trikala dance and the Russian tryn-trava.
Various embassy representatives will also introduce some of their country’s customs, with plenty of international dishes available. If that’s not enough, you can even get in on some karaoke while you’re there.
Chaoyang Park, 9.00am-5.00pm from Monday 23 to Saturday 28.
Longtan park (龙潭公园)
All the way out in Chongwen district, this is another fair that does’nt actually feature any temples, although the park does boast some tasteful Qing-style buildings and will be decked out in dragon-related regalia. Touch the giant character for wealth (fu) made up of miniature dragon figurines while wearing a blindfold and you’ll bag yourself some prosperity for the coming year too.
The fair will feature a 300-strong parade, apparently Beijing’s rather surreal wintertime answer to Rio’s carnival. It’s set to including dancing and a host of colourful floats that will meander their way through the park. A stage will also be set for taekwondo and other martial arts champs to show off their skills.
Wrap up warm for the outdoor ice carving. If you do get too cold, head indoors for an all-day Chinese chess competition.
Free shuttle services from the south-east exit of Tiantan Dongmen station to Longtan parks’s north-west gate will be running from 8.30am, although the number of buses and times are variable, so it is best to call in advance to find out more.
Longtan Park, 8am-5pm from Sunday 22 to Sunday 29.
Ditan Park (地坛公园)
One of Beijing’s biggest temple fairs, this one is a regular hit with the locals. Inside the park is the Altar of Earth and plenty else to catch your eye.
See if you can spot the Dai people’s ‘peacock dance’ amongst a host of dances from all over China. You’ll be able to see exhibitions that cover the life and customs of Beijingers through the centuries as well as the different ways that Spring Festival is now celebrated all over the world. Pick up some (supposedly) antique Chinese handicrafts from stalls and if you get there for 10am glimpse a re-enactment of the imperial family’s traditional prayers for good harvests originally held here in the summer months.
Hungry? Pick up dry-fried beans, jiaoquan (fried dough sticks that taste great dipped into doujiang – thick soy milk) as well niangao (New Year cakes).
Ditan Park, 8am-5pm, Sunday 22 to Sunday 29.