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Folk Organizations Try to Revive Traditional Flavor of Lantern Festival
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Flickering red lanterns, loud firecrackers and laughter when people goof on word puzzles -- such was the scene when some Beijing folk organizations crammed into an old hutong to relive long-gone Lantern Festival traditions.

The Chinese Lantern Festival, or 'Yuanxiao Festival', takes place on the 15th day of the first lunar month, the first night of the new year with a full moon. Celebrations often carry on from the 13th day to the 17th day of the lunar New Year.

Traditionally people would hold a five-day carnival nationwide by hanging up red lanterns believed to bring good luck, guessing word puzzles, performing lion and dragon dances and eating yuanxiao -- a round-shaped dumpling made of glutinous rice and a sweet filling.

"It seems that the only celebration left these days is eating," said Gao Wei, secretary general of the Beijing Folk Art Association, who attended the presentation of the traditional rituals in a hutong restaurant that serves traditional Beijing food.

"We want to remind the public of traditions which are fading away among the forest of high-rise buildings," said Zhang Wei, the organizer of the activity and founder of the OldBeijing website which records old hutongs before the bulldozers move in as part of Beijing's relentless modernization.

The 30-year-old man, dressed in a traditional long Chinese gown, invited folk culture experts and lantern craftsmen to the activity.

"Unlike today's tomato-shaped red lanterns, animals and characters from ancient literature are often pictured on the traditional lantern shades. The craftsmanship is so delicate that the artist may paint a woman's hair seven times," said Chang Renchun, 76, an expert on Chinese traditions.

Strips of red paper hang from the lanterns with word puzzles, and anyone who answers correctly can win a prize, Chang said, sitting in a beautiful old wooden chair under a sea of bobbing lanterns.

"I am glad to learn so many traditional rituals," said Jia Yan, a 24-year-old graduate student of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who won three gifts from the organizers.

He rushed to the activity after discovering it on the OldBeijing website, but none of his schoolmates joined him.

"It was a great fun. I used to think eating yuanxiao and letting off fireworks were the only festive things we did," said Gao Lanxin, a 12-year old girl in a traditional Chinese red coat.

She tried nail-touching, a game married women play in the hope of having a male baby in the new year. In Chinese the word nail, or "ding", is pronounced like the word 'male'.

But organizers do not underestimate the difficulty of preserving these traditions in a fast developing society.

"We need to resort to modern marketing methods to promote the old traditions," said Gao Wei. Publicizing their ceremony on the internet attracted some netizens to the restaurant. A few supermarkets are using word puzzles to attract customers and some parks are earning money by holding lantern exhibitions.

"In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a lot of old traditions are little more than memories for elderly Beijingers," said Zhang Wei.

"We are trying hard to revive the traditions, but there is a long way to go," Zhang said, looking around at the empty seats in the restaurant.

(Xinhua News Agency March 5, 2007)

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