Land and fire: Chinese villagers celebrate pagan festival

Villagers in northern China wake up before dawn to paint their faces with pinkish make-up, don colourful robes and wield swords to represent legendary figures for a unique festival capping Chinese New Year celebrations.

Art troupes gather at a plaza in Longxian county, Shaanxi province, to sing, beat drums, dance, and perform traditional Chinese drama and martial arts during the pagan She Huo celebration for the gods of land and fire.

They then hold a lively parade, some wearing long fake beards, others riding real horses or fake decorative stallions around their waist as onlookers follow them.

For this important regional tradition, performers get up as early as 4:00 am to paint their faces and prepare stage props like swords and spears.

China marked its New Year on February 16 to enter the Year of the Dog, but celebrations last for days and include regional traditions.

The She Huo festival dates back to ancient China, when people performed to pray to their gods for a bumper harvest and good weather.

Now it is listed as an intangible cultural heritage in China, where local governments are making efforts to make more people participate and enjoy the activity.

Government workers typically walk in front of the parade, leading it to new construction sites and shops as the art troupes perform blessing rituals.

But concerned villagers still worry about the fading of the tradition, saying the festival is getting shorter every year and the schedule is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

“It’s not as lively as it used to be when I was young,” Chen Liping, a She Huo performer in her 40s, told AFP.

“I hope it can be as boisterous forever, so we can have new performances every year.”

— This story accompanies a photo essay and video by Fred Dufour —

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