A Few Lines on Chunjie
Chunjie(春节), the beginning of a Chinese Lunar Calendar, known in English as Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival is undoubtedly the most important festival of China. On the dawn of the Spring Festival, major Chinese cities change into true deserts as according to the reports of the CCTV English about 15 million people (out of roughly 23) leave Beijing only during this period of the year. Accordingly, it's more difficult to find an open shop and many even basic everyday services are closed as well, but it doesn't necessarily mean that there is nothing interesting to do on Chunjie in Beijing. Rather to the contrary, the city although empty, shows some new, unexpected colours and flavours, which are exclusively limited to this time.
How to spend the Spring Festival in the most fruitful manner and use it to the very last drop? I wish that this article will be of some assistance.
Temple fairs (miaohui庙会)
What exactly is a miaohui? Simply speaking, miaohui is a temple fair. The tradition of organizing temple fairs originates in the rivalry between Taoism and Buddhism in China in the period between Tang and Song dynasties (7-13th century A.D.). Both religions were trying to attract more followers by organizing attractive and eventful fairs in the period of Lunar New Year, which were marked by numerous folk performances and sparkling parades. As with many other traditions having their foundations in religion, similarly temple fairs have in most cases been simply transformed into family gatherings. However, especially if there is a temple located in the vicinity of a holiday market, you can still spot people laying traditional offerings. In the case of Beijing, there are at least dozen major miaohui with countless minor fairs happening each year and attracting thousands of visitors.
After a long suppression, waking life is blatantly raising its head from the lethargy and apathy of winter and takes its rightful place in the never ending course of life. Therefore, temple fairs are always filled with lights, numerous performances and nice (especially sweet) things to eat. As is not difficult to imagine they are also bursting with crowds. During this season, traditional Chinese music is even noisier and children equally naughtier and more unruly. Be prepared for being stared at and approached, however mostly in a polite and respectful manner, which can provide for a nice encounter especially if you can speak even limited Chinese. Some of Beijing's most popular miaohui take place in Ditan Park, Old Summer Palace and Changdian Temple. My personal favourite miaohui is Lama Temple Yonhegong temple fair, which I attend year after year.
Located close to line 2 subway station of a similar name, Lama temple fair is a very typical example of a temple fair you can visit in Beijing - thousands of stalls filled with food and traditional Chinese crafts, sea of New Year's couplets spreading the wishes of joy, health and multitude, folk performances and incessant crowds of people, most often accompanied by extended families make it a very interesting site, although it's certainly not advisable for you to go there if you don't like jammed and noisy places. What is also important, sweets sold there won't cost you an arm and a leg.
When in Rome do as the Romans do - this saying is also relevant when talking about Beijing. Apart from some well-established activities such as visiting the Temple of Earth, taking a stroll in a neighbourhood of hutong is a less conventional way to observe some customs accompanying the Spring Festival.
New Year's couplet, this complimentary house decoration conventionally pasted next to the door of Chinese houses during the Spring Festival is intended to invite the good fortune (福:fu) and possibly scare away the demons lurking hidden in the modern lifestyle around every corner. When enjoying your walk through the narrow and often winding streets of hutong during the Chunjie season you can notice families visiting each other and elders playing cards or Chinese chess, while simultaneously almost as a rule enshrouded in clouds of smoke that add to their overall look of mysteriousness and stateliness. Parts of hutongs are desolate during this period, for everybody wants to spend this festival with other members of extended family, when at the same time other more commercialised crowded to the point of no passage, are bursting with festive and joyous spirit. Whichever landscape and scenario in Beijing I encounter upon my numerous wanderings, unfailingly in my eyes no example of modern architecture, no matter how shiny or tall it is compares to a simple hutong or four sided siheyuan (四合院), the true embodiments of the best that Beijing has to offer. For life is not exclusively valued based on its external appearances and illusions, but more frequently appreciated owing to emotional charge and specific memories the environment around us evokes and therein lies the core of hutong's charm.
What makes hutongs even more authentic is the fact that most of them are still inhabited and as is well known there is no better way to understand life in a foreign country, than by observing local inhabitants. This is Beijing devoid of skyscrapers, English, barren of 24/7, easy, instant, sale, faster, quicker, cheaper, best, now eat more have more fun, live happy no worries culture. Living conditions prevailing in hutong may not always be up to Western standards, but they are certainly up to hutong standards, where people still know their neighbours and where in the hour of need you can rely on something more than a power of your own purse.
My favourite hutongs
Nanluoguxiang(南锣鼓巷) is a place full of shops and interesting bars existing in an environment of traditional Beijing architecture; what makes this hutong special is the fact that although there is a number of commercial establishments operating here, this place still retained some of the traditional hutong spirit (some part of this hutong is inhabited) in a stark contrast to neighbouring Houhai(后海).
Dashilar(大栅栏) many waiguoren(外国人) foreigners are not aware that at the very end of this busy and crowded street exists a traditional Beijing hutong and a hutong in its own right.
Liulichang(琉璃厂), similarly to Dashilar, this place is known to most foreigners as a marketplace, especially popular for traditional Chinese craftwork and handicraft while at the same time surrounded by traditional Beijing hutong; walking around its not so well organized streets feels like being transferred both in time and space.
Last, but not least my general advice to you o dear Seeker (however twisted your life's paths are) is to leave some space for creativity and adventure in your daily encounters with that somehow enigmatic, compelling and simultaneously monstrous entity popularly referred to as Beijing. A visit to some local hutong, park, temple or simply a walk in some slightly less popular quarters of the city also have their often accidental and unintended charms. Calling upon some most frequented tourist spots of Beijing will certainly provide you with entertainment or maybe even exaltation at times, but as it happens true pearls are most often buried under the thick cover of dust.