A Local house decorated for the Lantern Festival on Feb. 7, 2012 in Zuoquan County, Shanxi Province. [China.org.cn]
On Feb. 7, we went to local villages surrounding Zuoquan's town center to see how they were celebrating the Lantern Festival. Apart from seeing brilliantly decorated buildings, we saw that the locals were also preparing coal pyres to light on the final night of this important holiday. Our local guide explained that lighting the pyres represented a considerable financial sacrifice – one piece of coal costs 1 yuan or more, and each pyre may contain hundreds of pieces of coal. Since the locals use coal for their heating and cooking needs, the pyres consume a month's supply or more of energy for each household.
Each household's annual income, our guide explained, has little effect on how much coal they sacrifice in the pyres, since lighting the pyre is considered to be a good luck omen for the coming year.
In one of the villages, we chanced upon a family relaxing prior to the evening's festivities. Local children, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, were sitting around the table playing cards. The father of the house, who was a local laborer, performed a traditional song for us with a surprisingly clear voice. The mother told me that usually the kids are busy doing their homework, but during the Chinese New Year holiday they finally have a chance to relax.
Nearby, our group sat down for a She Huo (literally "Community Fire") dance performance created by a local dance troupe. The female performers, most aged 18-22, attended local high schools or nearby colleges. Despite the fact that they only had less than two weeks to prepare, they performed 11 dance acts for us, ranging from traditional to modern. Some of the dance routines incorporated everyday life customs such as gathering wheat and corn, to marriage customs, to more modern material — even a bit resembling interpretive hip-hop dance.
"We designed the acts according to the input of the group," the group's young director said. "It's a collage of the old and new mixed together."
Later in the evening, we gathered again in the town square for a fireworks show and to check out the town's brilliantly colored lantern exhibits.
Zuoquan has one of the largest Lantern Festival displays of any smaller town in China – at night in the town's central square, elaborate lighted displays portrayed mythic tales from Chinese literature, such as the classic fables "Journey to the West" and "The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea." Local officials told us that the Lantern Festival displays had been jointly sponsored by the county government as well as national and local businesses, particularly in the coal industry, and some residents also participated as joint sponsors.
While fireworks filled the night sky, the coal pyres in the town square were set ablaze, warming hundreds of spectators from the freezing cold air. Little did we know, however, that we were about to witness one of Zuoquan's most unique customs – a She Huo talent contest.
As about a hundred people gathered in the street, the show commenced. Dozens of performing groups, ranging from fan dancers to acrobats to martial artists, each holding a placard saying the town or company that the group represents, started arriving in the square.
We learned that this was the second year that the county had set up the She Huo local talent competition, but this was the first year that the town was offering monetary prizes for the acts that drew the most spectators. Groups could earn between 100 to 200 yuan for garnering a good reaction from the crowd. A judge onsite calculated each group's winnings.
"2011 was a good year for us. In the past, we would just offer fruit or snacks to winning teams, this is the first year that we're offering money," a local organizer told us.
One aspect that our group noted was that in addition to the official festivities organized by the government, local residents also were performing various acts of She Huo on the street, setting off fireworks, beating drums, dancing with dragons, and twirling fans to delighted onlookers both young and old. From the view on the street, it seemed like everyone in Zuoquan couldn't help but get caught up in the festivities.
We even got a chance to join in the fun – one group of drum and cymbal-bearing rhythmists invited us to play cymbals with them. For a couple of minutes, we all got into the rhythm, much to the delight of onlookers, awed at seeing foreigners performing their local customs.
On Feb. 8, the last day of our trip, we attended the county's largest spectacle, the She Huo Jie (Community Fire Festival) parade. Although similar in nature to the one we saw in Yuci a few days ago, the parade was full of local flavor. Over 3,000 performers marched in the parade, and over 30 local companies and groups were represented, each one performing a different act. Colorful floats told of the local industry alive in the county: from coal, to power production, to agriculture. Local schools and various government agencies also performed.
The presence of secondary industries in the parade was a sign that Zuoquan is trying to shift its economy away from coal mining. At a press conference prior to the She Huo Jie events, we were able to speak with the county mayor, who explained that agriculture and tourism will both be integral to the county's development in subsequent years as the county's coal supply diminishes. Walnut farming as well as building tourism spots in scenic mountain areas adjacent to the town are key factors in this strategy, the mayor said.
Even though variations of She Huo Jie also exist in other areas of China, the bright colors, high energy and excitement of She Huo Jie in Shanxi Province, as well as the sheer numbers of performers, have made it renowned all over the country.
As the New Year holiday ends, many of the local residents in Zuoquan will go back to difficult labor jobs, including working at the local power plant, farms, factories or coal mines. Others will leave their hometown to pursue work in other cities. But during the Lantern Festival, the entire county is able to come together to carry on ancient traditions that have been going on for thousands of years.