An acrid smell greeted my nostrils on New Year’s Day. Outside, the snow was stained red with the debris of World War 3. I picked my way through piles of smouldering rubbish, keeping a look out for unexpected exploding crackers and made my way to the Small Goose Pagoda Temple Fair. What a delight.
Enormous dragons and mythical and religious statues welcomed in a freezing New Year. Breath taking acrobatics took place on an outdoor stage. A young boy, no more than 8 years old, climbed up a never-ending series of up- turned chairs dressed in flimsy Lycra. It was a least -8 that day. There were shadow puppet displays, colourful dragon processions with Beijing opera characters following behind, lanterns with riddles posted on them, music and calligraphy. All the fun of a traditional Chinese fair.
I was unaware how important the last celebration of the Spring Festival was. Known as the Lantern Festival, it dates back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) when the emperor ordered lanterns to be lit in all the temples and palaces to show respect for the Buddha. Nowadays, it is another important time to spend with the family and visit the various lantern displays around the city. There are also some traditional rural festivals, one of which I was lucky enough to witness. Two Chinese friends invited me to the “she huo” festival in a village at the foot of the Chinling mountains. They said that there would be some dancing and festivities but I was not prepared for what we saw.
Traditional food was laid out on trestle tables at the entrance to the village and we ate spicy noodles with fresh coriander and honey filled dumplings to keep out the cold. Hundreds of villagers from the surrounding areas poured into Houguanzhai and took up their positions along the streets and other vantage points to see the procession. Whispers of “laowi” – “foreigner” – rippled after me as I made my way down the street. It is quite possible that some of the older folk had never seen a foreigner before and I was the only one there. Costumed horsemen galloped wildly up and down the narrow streets in a dangerous attempt at crowd control.
At last the beating of the drums announced the start of the carnival. It was a “lord mayor’s” type parade with a difference. Young children, some under two years old, were bound to long metal poles and dressed in Chinese opera-costumes with painted mask faces and ornate wigs. The floats moved slowly through the crowds with the children only being able to move their arms, draped in long-sleeved robes. The purpose of the floats was to make it look as if the children were floating or balancing in trees or in clouds as they moved puppet-like through the streets. It was mind boggling. The poor kids had been practising for weeks apparently but they were exhausted. Many of them fell asleep atop their lofty poles whilst their parents tried to poke them awake with long sticks. “Stay awake or I’ll beat you!” one mother yelled at her unfortunate daughter. Another very young child pulled off his wig and was crying but to no avail. It was obviously one of those occasions when parents, who kept popping up from the back of the float vehicles, were proud to show off their children.
My doctor friends in Xi’an kindly invited me out for a meal on Lantern Festival. They knew I had no family here and it is traditionally a family affair. It was great to see them all again (see Doctors on Tour blog). Our conversation was drowned out by even more thunderous bangs and booms than on New Year’s Eve. We rounded off the meal with yuanxiao – glutinous rice balls filled with bean paste. Eating them denotes harmony and happiness for the family. My return bus journey was positively hazardous with rockets and crackers exploding everywhere. I watched a spectacular display near my flat and then beat a hasty retreat and repeated my actions from New Year’s Eve 15 days earlier.
So where ever you are, “May the Star of Happiness, the Star of Wealth and the Star of Longevity shine on you. ” xin nian kuai le.