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Beijing Temple Fair Guide 2011

Temple fairs celebrate - and are in themselves - ancient customs, but they're increasingly demonstrating that traditions are anything but stagnant. There is no consensus on the process with some saying the carnivals' traditional components are dying, while others insist they are merely reincarnating into new cultural life forms. But they have been in Beijing for the longest time, and are a part of celebrating the arrival of Spring, and so, have evolved into being part of the Lunar New Year festivities.

"It's hard to say if the fairs are becoming more or less traditional, and if that's good or bad," says 69-year-old Beijinger Lin Jun, who has regularly visited the fairs for decades. "But the very fact they exist, whatever form they take, is because of tradition. That's for sure and that's a good thing."

The fairs, or miaohui, are said to hail back to ancient days, when farmers would offer Spring Festival sacrifices to village gods. They developed into marketplaces for goods and ideas, where agrarians and artisans would peddle wares and showmen would stage cultural performances.

Temple fairs grew in prominence throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), but essentially evaporated with New China's 1949 founding and were taboo during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

The country's first official miaohui after the establishment of the People's Republic was in 1985 at Beijing's Temple of Earth (Ditan) Park. Ditan continues to host the capital's busiest Spring Festival fair.

The carnivals at Ditan and Dongyue - which became the site of Beijing's first miaohui in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and hosts the only fair actually staged within a temple - largely remain true to tradition. But other fairs have been departing from historical orthodoxy, and particularly this year.

Zhongguancun - often called China's Silicon Valley - will offer a futuristic presentation of this ancient ritual, celebrating the country's modernization with high-tech displays. Chaoyang Park's miaohui will feature foreign performances alongside local shows. And the Olympic Sports Center will introduce a fitness theme to the festive carnival.

"Many of the traditional elements of the temple fairs are disappearing and are being replaced by new ones," 61-year-old folk performer Zhou Wanglin says.

"Old Beijing culture is becoming a smaller and smaller part of the fairs. It's a pity, because the crowds, especially the ordinary people, feel warm and happy when they see traditional performances."

The contortionist started staging shows as Ji Gong - an eccentric and chronically inebriated monk who was a compassionate and courageous folk hero - as a boy in the 1950s. He decided last year to take his show to Longtanhu's temple fair.

Onstage, Zhou tucks his ankles behind his head, assuming the posture of a pretzel, and pantomimes swigging booze from a gourd while wobbling around on his bottom to the delight of guffawing crowds.

"I really like Ji Gong because the way he stands for justice is representative of traditional Chinese culture," Zhou says.

"So I believe it's my responsibility to tap Ji Gong's kongfu essence and help people understand him."

Zhou began performing the role in Beijing's Tianqiao as a young boy in the 1950s, when he would practice atop the old city wall.

He says he has since employed a special technique to get a leg up on his peculiar performance: "Every night, I use one of my feet as a pillow."

But while Zhou is passionate about such folk performances, he fears they are dissolving into obscurity as the younger generation comes of age. He says he has long sought an apprentice but to no avail.

"The temple fair provides a great venue to introduce Ji Gong to younger people, who may not know as much about him or appreciate him as much as older generations," Zhou says. "But when they see the performance, they always love it, especially because it's pretty funny."

And for Zhou, that's reward enough for appearing onstage.

"I don't accept money for performing at the temple fair. It's my duty to keep Ji Gong alive for the next generation," Zhou says.

But some fear commercialization is too drastically reinventing the essence of the country's miaohui.

Renowned folklore expert Bai Dacheng points to the charging of stall fees as an example of this phenomenon.

"These traditional artisans are in themselves good promotion for the fairs," he says. "If they're charged for being there, they have to pass those costs on to visitors. But nothing should be expensive at the miaohui, because they should be for and about the ordinary people."

And Bai spits particularly sour words at the booth bidding process used by most organizers.

"It jacks up the stall prices significantly and quickly," he says.

The first stall to go under the hammer this year started at 15,000 yuan ($2,278) and quickly shot up to 115,000 yuan, media reported.

Gu Shengli, the celebrity kebab vendor known for being the top bidder for five consecutive temple fairs, offered 300,000 yuan for the most expensive location last year. This time, he got a stall for 85,000 yuan.

Beijinger Li Bin has regularly attended the fairs over the past 20 years, from when she was just a teenager.

"There are more activities now, and they're more diverse," the 37-year-old says. "Most of the things you could see 20 years ago were the same things you'd see every year at every fair. Not as many people cared about them back then."

She says she has been attending temple fairs more frequently in recent years. That's because she believes they're the umbilical cords to traditional times in an era when modernization is scorching an imprint on every dimension of life in the country.

And Li believes the miaohui are important for her 4-year-old to see.

"It's great for kids and very exciting for my son," she says. "Seeing the temple fairs lets him know something about our Spring Festival traditions, why we do what we do and how Chinese culture makes us Chinese."