Zhoucun of Shandong Province is a district under the jurisdiction of Zibo City. It is famous for its annual lantern fair.
The dance of "big-headed babies"
As early as in the 17th century, silk reeling and spun silk textile industry had been quite developed. This attracted a lot of merchants to the town and made it prosperous. Every year at around the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month, shops would hang colourful lanterns at the gate and people would light firecrackers and even fireworks to celebrate the holiday. People from nearby villages and merchants came to see the lanterns, do shopping or business. Every night, from the 8th to the 16th of the first month, the town was thronged with people. As the years passed, the lantern fair at Zhoucun became a routine. But there was also exception. It was decided by the Zhoucun residents that the fair would not be held under three circumstances: a poor harvest year, a year of unrest, or year when there was a natural disaster.
Long before the lantern fair was held, lantern craftsmen would be invited to make lanterns for stores and workshops. People vied with each other in making better and more elegant lanterns. Besides those hung at the gates, lantern towers were also set up at major crossroads.
During the lantern fair, variety shows such as dragon lantern dance, landboat, high stilts, lion dance and xinzi are also performed. Of them, xinzi is the most unique and traditional show of Zhoucun. Generally a boy or a girl in opera costumes is tied to an iron stick which is tightly fixed onto a socket.
The history of xinzi goes back to more than a century. The initiator of this was a local artist. Every year when a show was put up at festival times, he saw that there was such a large crowd of audience that people standing behind the crowd could not see what was going on inside the circle. He thought that if the performer could stand at a high place while performing, all in the audience would be able to see him. Inspired by the candle light, he invented this show on high stick.
At each lantern fair, there were at least a dozen or even a few dozens of xinzi shows with the number performers ranging from ten to several dozens. They would play different roles in local opera.
The heyday of Zhoucun's lantern fair was believed to be during the reign of Emperor Qianlong(1736-1795) of the Qing Dynasty. Although there was no record to prove this, I was a witness to it in 1986 when the fair was held. There were 2,538 lanterns of all kinds, 9 lantern towers at major intersections, 37 xinzi shows, 12 dragon lanterns, 42 landboats, 156 pairs of high stilts, 14 pairs of lions dance performers, 95 maskers and 11 floats. There were also some variety shows that could not name. I suppose even during its heydays, the lantern fair could not have been more spectacular.