[Chinese New Year Special] A bygone era: Chinese New Year celebrations during the time of the Republic of China

The Chinese calendar, based on observations of sun and moon, was chiefly used to mark agrarian time. With the dawn of the Republic of China in 1912, official calendars were reset to the Gregorian system. No matter that the start of the year was now 1 January, people’s lives were still much tied to the land. They welcomed the Spring Festival and Chinese New Year with relish, celebrating their well-earned rest from toil. Photo collector Hsu Chung-mao shares his precious images of celebrations in Beijing and Nanjing from a bygone era.
Fairgoers blowing bubbles at the Confucius Temple lantern display. The floating bubbles lend an air of fantasy to the scene.
Fairgoers blowing bubbles at the Confucius Temple lantern display. The floating bubbles lend an air of fantasy to the scene.

Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the most important celebration for the Chinese. For an agricultural society, farming stops for the winter after the autumn harvest, and it is time to rest and recharge. Traditionally, it is also a time for the family to come together. Young people working and studying away from home return by New Year’s Eve and everyone gathers around. At midnight, firecrackers are let off to say goodbye to the old year and to welcome the new.

During the time of the Republic of China (1912-1949, when China was under the Kuomintang), agricultural production was China's main economic activity. Traditional Spring Festival celebrations were very lively and usually lasted from New Year’s eve to the 15th day of the first lunar month. Most stores and businesses only reopened on the fifth day of the new year, but some well-known marketplaces were open from the first day onwards, and were even more crowded than usual as everyone went there to shop and have fun.

A stall selling firecrackers at a temple fair in Beijing. Firecrackers were lit during the first five days of the new year, with the loudest noise at midnight on the first day.
Lanterns at Beijing's Dong'an Market. The last day of the new year is also a day to carry lanterns. All sorts of lanterns are displayed at temple fairs and markets in a blaze of colour, forming fond new year memories for the children.

In the north and south of China, there were temple fairs: there was the Changdian Temple Fair (厂甸庙会) in Beijing, and the Confucius Temple Fair (夫子庙会) in Nanjing. These two fairs, along with the Chenghuang Temple Fair (城隍庙会) in Shanghai and the Qingyang Temple Fair (青羊宫庙会) in Chengdu, are the four biggest temple fairs in China. The Changdian and Confucius temple fairs were already major marketplaces on usual days, and during Chinese New Year, they were even busier. Not just the locals, but people from nearby provinces and cities flocked in, creating the typical Chinese New Year celebratory scene.


The Changdian Temple Fair is the biggest temple fair in Beijing, and the only temple fair that is not named after an actual temple. Chang (厂, factory) refers to the factory for glazed tiles (琉璃厂) that was located there during the Ming dynasty. The open space around the glazed tile factory was called the changdian (厂甸). The glazed tile factory was one of the five major factories of the Ming dynasty. The other factories were two woodworks, one for giant timber and one for regular-size timber (神木厂 and 大木厂), a kiln (黑窑厂), and a facility dedicated to renovation and repair works in the Forbidden City (台基厂).

During the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing dynasty, the glazed tile factory was shifted to the Mentougou district in west Beijing, and the cleared site became a place for the residents of Beijing’s outskirts to gather and trade, and gradually a marketplace.

Since then, during the first fifteen days of the first lunar month, the marketplace would be abuzz with Beijing merchants and their huge variety of stalls. The snack sellers and businessmen who were usually spread out all over the city would converge at the spot, attracting residents from in and out of Beijing to visit and taste the snacks. As the Changdian Temple Fair continued to be held year after year, it became a well-known Chinese New Year event in Beijing.

A stall offering handwritten new year wishes at a temple fair in Beijing. There was no printing at the time, and many educated people wrote couplets for extra cash.
A vendor writes the Chinese character 福 (good fortune). New year wishes are usually either couplets (对联) or single words. For the latter, the characters 福 and 春 (spring) are the most common. These wishes are put up on the door or in various places around the home.
An artist at a market in Beijing sells his on-the-spot drawings. China’s calligraphy and art are said to merge as one, and the brush strokes and calligraphy in China’s ink paintings is second to none.
dongyue temple
The first day of the new year is an important day to offer incense and prayers at Dongyue Temple in Beijing. Residents flock to this famous temple in hopes of good fortune in the new year.

When the temple fair was on, the stretch from Hepingmen (和平门, Heping Gate) all the way to the end of South Xinhua Street (南新华街) would be chock-full of vendors and people. Step through Heping Gate and immediately all sorts of snacks and assorted goods hit the eye. The junction of South Xinhua Street and Liulichang East and West Streets was the heart of the action. Near the crossroads was Haiwangcun Park, the most crowded area where Beijing’s trademark snacks and children’s toys were sold. Liulichang West Street was where the literati gathered; this area saw a brisk trade in books and art. On the other side, near the Fire God Temple (火神庙, or Huode Zhenjun Temple 火德真君庙) on Liulichang East Street, was where gems and antiques were bought and sold. The temple fair promised something for everyone, and most people in and out of Beijing would have the shared memory of strolling through the Changdian Temple Fair.

heping gate
A stall selling kites outside Heping Gate in Beijing. Kite-flying is also a major tradition among the people, usually in open spaces outside the city.
A stall at Beijing’s Haiwangcun Park selling diabolos, a traditional children’s toy in China. It has grown into a display of skill, as seen in traditional performances.
old books
A stall at Beijing’s Haiwangcun Park selling old thread-stitched books from the Ming and Qing dynasty. Collecting such thread-stitched editions is a key occupation of the literati.
clay figures
A stall at Beijing's Haiwangcun Park selling clay figures, a traditional form of sculpting. The figures are decorative, symbolising blessings of many offspring and descendants.

Nanjing, the old capital

Nanjing, historically, was made the capital of China by various governments and dynasties; it was the centre of political culture in southern China. In the centre of the city, the area around Confucius Temple on the north bank of the Qinhuai River could be said to contain the essence of Nanjing. Many major families of southern China were concentrated here, making it the most prosperous area in Nanjing, with vendors and businessmen gathered around Confucius Temple to form a street market.

bus conductor
A conductor of a bus to Confucius Temple in Nanjing stands ready to serve with his bag of tickets. During the Six Dynasties period (222-589 AD), the area around Confucius Temple (Wuyi Alley, Zhuque Street, and Taoyedu) was where the well-known families lived.

Every Chinese New Year, Nanjing’s famous Jinling Lantern Festival (金陵灯会) opened, and the festivities lasted throughout the first fifteen days of the new year. The Jinling Lantern Festival was called the “number one lantern festival in the world”, and each year the people of Nanjing turned up for it, making it an important tradition. There was a saying: “If you don’t go and see the New Year lanterns at Confucius Temple, you have not celebrated the new year; if you go to Confucius Temple but don’t buy a lantern, you haven’t celebrated the new year properly.” Clearly, the Jinling Lantern Festival was a big thing for the people of Nanjing.

The crowd at the Confucius Temple fair during Chinese New Year.
Vendors selling lanterns at the Confucius Temple lantern fair. Lantern decorations are a grand sight at the Qinhuai River. During the Ming dynasty, it was popular to adorn boats large and small with colourful lanterns. A trip down the Qinhuai River on a decorated boat is a must. The dreamlike sight of lanterns amid the buildings at night is mesmerising.

During the festival, all sorts of colourful lanterns were displayed at Confucius Temple, while nearby vendors hawked their homemade lanterns to passing tourists. Each year, the lantern-makers thought of new ideas to get their lanterns to stand out, resulting in all sorts of novel designs. Apart from the lanterns, there were also snacks and assorted goods, as well as books, paintings, and calligraphy integrating Nanjing culture. Besides admiring the lanterns and stalls along Gongyuan Street in front of Confucius Temple, there was also the Qinhuai River scene to take in.

The Confucius Temple lantern fair boasts displays of exotic animals. A sign advertises “animals freshly arrived from Nanyang (Southeast Asia)”, including a python, to attract customers.
A seller of old books bargains with a customer at the Confucius Temple lantern fair. There are stalls selling old goods at the Confucius Temple fair, including some valuable antique and old editions.
ring toss
The ring toss is a common game at the Confucius Temple lantern fair. 

The temple fairs in the north and south of China showcase the vitality of traditional practices. They are not just commercial activities, but also reflect the strong family bonds and traditional religious beliefs among the Chinese, as well as the Confucian spirit of cooperation.

Related reading: [Chinese New Year Special] Food changes, and so does the world | [Chinese New Year Special] Family rituals of a Shandong Spring Festival | [Chinese New Year Special] My hometown is no longer an unchanging home