We decided to start our Chunjie Celebrations by going to the Ditan Yuan Temple Fair on Chinese New Year’s Eve which was the opening day.
The festival runs for 10 days, and we were told that as it is the biggest Miaohui in Beijing it gets progressively busier and from New Year’s Day onward it becomes almost impossible to move around easily as so many people cram in. Going there from the moment it first opened at 9.00am on the first day seemed like a good idea – and indeed it was.
Temple fairs (miaohui) originated in the early history of China when farmers would go to temples at the lunar new year to offer sacrifices to their local gods, hoping for better harvests in the year ahead. Merchants, artizans and entertainers would gather and sell goods and provide cultural performances for the ordinary people. The fairs became more and more prominent during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 – 1911AD) but from the founding of the PRC in 1949 they started to decline and then they became completely taboo during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976AD). The first re-awakening of this ancient tradition was in 1985 when the first Temple Fair of the modern era was held in Beijing at the Temple of Earth.
Ditan Yuan is one of the four great temples that surround the Forbidden City, it was built by Emperor Jia of the Ming dynasty in 1530AD. It was there that the Emperor offered sacrifices at the Fang Ze Tang – Square Water Altar – each Spring Festival.
Hundreds of stalls displayed traditional crafts such as papercutting, or sugar blown animals; there were weavers with their looms demonstrating how they produced the fabrics which were made up into hats, scarves and bags, as well as people who did wood or stone carving. The souvenir stalls were a mix of Chinese items and stuff which – although made in China – had a western provenance. Then there were stalls where you could try your luck to win a fluffy toy – and you chose your stall according to whether you wanted to win Winnie-the-Pooh, Garfield, or Hello Kitty, but needless to say the animal that was everywhere, in every medium, was the Rabbit!
No event in China would be complete without lots and lots of opportunities to eat, and there were certainly plenty of those. Many areas of the fair had stalls selling food. Everything was designed to be eaten on the hoof so to speak, there were no sit-down food stalls, but there was an amazing variety of snacks on display. Lamb kebabs, stir-fried noodles, spicy chicken wings and unmentionable deep-fried insects on sticks and so many types of dumpling, hot, steamed, boiled, fried – Beijing style, Shanghai style, Shandong style…the list goes on. Tempted though we were, we decided to save ourselves as we were going on to a major dumpling lunch with an old Beijing friend and some of her colleagues.