Temple fairs have been a part of daily life in Beijing for hundreds of years becoming especially popular during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Scattered all over the city so residents could easily make their way to the nearest, some fairs were held as regularly as every fortnight. Between stalls hawking the kind of festive knick-knacks we all find so difficult to resist (especially during the holiday season) were opera and acrobatic troupes, puppet shows and cross-talk (the Qing equivalent of a stand-up comedy act).
The Spring Festival fairs were, of course, a much bigger deal. Back in the day, it was the Changdian fair that raked in the crowds, with long sticks of sweetened hawthorn fruits and visiting opera stars guaranteed.
Today, temple fairs remain the best place to get a real taste of the Chinese New Year
. Most begin on the first day of the lunar calendar (16 February this year), and last for five to six days. Here are the best of Beijing's outdoor festivals.
Ditan Park (地坛公园)
One of Beijing's biggest temple fairs, this one is a regular hit with the locals. Inside the park is the Altar of Earth and plenty else to catch your eye.
See if you can spot the Dai people's 'peacock dance' amongst a host of dances from all over China. You'll be able to see exhibitions that cover the life and customs of Beijingers through the centuries as well as the different ways that Spring Festival is now celebrated all over the world. Pick up some (supposedly) antique Chinese handicrafts from stalls and if you get there at 10am, glimpse a re-enactment of the imperial family's traditional prayers for good harvests originally held here in the summer months. If that's not enough, there will also be plenty of other performances including comedy crosstalk, traditional Tibetan folk dances and ancient magic and ventriloquism.
Hungry? Pick up dry-fried beans, jiaoquan (fried dough sticks that taste great dipped into doujiang – thick soy milk) as well niangao (New Year cakes).
Ditan Park Andingmen Wai Dajie, Dongcheng district. 16-20 February. Open 8:30am-5pm. 10RMB.
Longtan Park (龙潭公园)
Located in Dongcheng district, this fair doesn't actually feature any temples, although the park does boast some tasteful Qing-style buildings and will be decked out in dragon-related regalia. Touch the giant character for wealth (fu) made up of miniature dragon figurines while wearing a blindfold and you'll bag yourself some prosperity for the coming year too.
The fair will feature Chinese traditional performances such as taekwondo and acrobatics. It's set to include dancing and a host of colourful floats that will meander their way through the park. There will be various activities that will keep you out playing in the cold, such as the snow park. You can also watch wrestling, judo, taekwondo and free combat performances from professional sports stars.
Wrap up warm for the outdoor ice carving. If you do get too cold, head indoors for an all-day Chinese chess competition.
Longtan Park 8 Longtanhu Lu, Dongcheng district. 16-21 February. Open 8:30am-5pm. 10RMB.
Shijingshan Amusement Park
Enjoy a mixture of traditional Chinese culture and modern Western influences at the New Year fair hosted by Beijing's answer to Disneyland. There will be a display of traditional craftsmanship, folk artistic performances, wrestling and lion dances.
Old Summer Palace (圆明园)
One of the most spectacular temple fairs on offer, visitors can immerse themselves in the Qing Dynasty with the help of emperors played by actors. There will also be drama performances, concerts and performances by professional skaters in Qing Dynasty costumes.