Spring into Beijing’s most popular temple fairs

written and photographed by ANDY PENAFUERTE  

The annual “largest human migration” in China has begun, with millions of people traveling back to their hometowns to celebrate Chūnjié or the first day of the Lunar New Year, which falls on January 24 this year. In the capital Beijing, the exodus leaves the entire city almost devoid of action, unless you head into the parks now decorated with countless red lanterns and transformed into bustling marketplaces called temple fairs (庙会miàohuì).

In ancient and imperial times, local folk temples held these gatherings so villagers could assemble or worship deities, especially during important events such as harvest time or ringing in the New Year. Fairs also became centers of commerce, attracting merchants and performers from across northern China.

Nowadays, temple fairs have moved from their religious roots and become a commercialized and secular extravaganza. A lot of entertainment, however, still springs from surviving traditions such as stilt walking and acrobatics, lion or dragon dancers, opera performances. And of course, don’t forget the markets full of artisanal craft, displays of traditional art, and festival food fare. Temple fairs usually open at 9 AM with grand performances.

A performer gets ready to entertain the crowd during a temple fair in China.

Entrance to smaller temple fairs are usually free of charge, but prepare up to RMB 20 (approximately USD 3) if you need to pay on-site. Bigger fairs happening at Chaoyang Park (Chaoyang Park Station, Line 14), dubbed by local media outlets as the most “international” because of performances from foreigners, have tickets to cap the number of visitors.

The most famous temple fair in Beijing happens at Changdian Temple in Xicheng District (Taoranting Station, Line 4), featuring acrobatic shows and shadow puppet performances in addition to artisanal crafts market. Meanwhile, the oldest and most crowded temple fair in Beijing is found at Ditan Park in Dongcheng District (Hepingli Beijie Station, Line 5). Aside from folk performances, travelers can get a taste of snacks from Beijing, Sichuan, Tianjin, and Xinjiang, though these may get pricey.

A “royal” and less busy temple fair takes place at the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan Station, Line 4), with activities that showcase Qing-era customs and themed lectures on the cuisine and costume of China’s last imperial dynasty. For an “authentic” feel, head over to Dongyue Temple (Chaoyangmen Station, Line 2, and head east), a shrine dedicated to the deity of Mount Tai, one of the five sacred mountains of the Taoist tradition in China.

Further west in the Shijingshan district, around 50 kilometers from the Beijing Capital Airport, is the Shijingshan Amusement Park (Bajiao Amusement Park Station, Line 1) whose temple fair is full of exotic scenes and foods said to draw foreign visitors.

There are more temple fairs to visit, though the ones above are the most accessible by Beijing subway since many taxi drivers will be on holiday. As many travelers will also head out to these rambunctious fairs, remember that it’s always good to keep an eye on your belongings.

Andy Penafuerte is a writer living in Beijing. You can read more from him at http://coolkidandy.com

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