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    Gods on Parade: A New Year’s Tradition Keeps the Good Times Rolling

    A colorful procession of deities forms an important part of the annual Spring Festival celebrations for rural communities in southeast China.

    FUJIAN, East China — For most Chinese people, the annual Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month, marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Not for those in Fujian province, though.

    In this southeastern region, the Spring Festival custom of “youshen,” otherwise known as the God Pageant Ceremony, can often stretch into the second month of the lunar calendar.

    Youshen, which literally means “wandering gods,” is a folk tradition in rural Fujian dating back to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) in which villages hold joyous parades and other celebrations to welcome the spring and pray to local gods and deities. Every year, villagers carry large sculptures of deities through streets and alleys to dispel evil, avert disaster, and seek blessings.

    Fuzhou city’s Changle District is renowned for its youshen festivities, which typically stretch well into the night. The timing and scale of the processions vary from village to village, but the celebration held in Houfu Township is regarded as one of the most magnificent. It brings together people from almost 20 communities who parade hundreds of deities from 9 a.m. until 2 a.m. the next day.

    In Dailing Village, residents held their youshen on Feb. 17 this year. Starting at 2 p.m., locals set out bearing large sculptures on a grand procession through the countryside, accompanied by the resounding sounds of drums and firecrackers, before stopping at a local temple where worshippers prayed to the gods. In the evening, families held banquets for visiting friends and relatives, and then continued their parade with colorful lanterns, escorting the deities through the fields as fireworks boomed overhead.

    “It’s one of the most anticipated events of the year,” says Ye Kaiwei, a 22-year-old villager and parade participant. “Many people return from overseas just for this couple of days. As soon as it’s over, they’ll gear up to leave the village again to get back to work.”

    The procession is remarkable for its many shenjiang, or divine generals, who precede and follow the main deity as subordinates. Their effigies — known as tagu, literally “tower bones” — are large hollow bamboo structures. In Changle, the act of parading while carrying one of these effigies is called tingshen, or “bearing a godling.”

    Ye, who performed tingshen this year, says the role is mostly taken by young people from the village. As the effigies can weigh up to 40 kilograms, four or five individuals will take turns carrying them. There are also specific sets of movements for the feet and hands.

    “I haven't received formal training, but I’ve been exposed to the tradition since childhood. I’ve learned through observation,” Ye explains. “Nowadays, many children follow the procession. They find it entertaining, and gradually they pick it up. Perhaps someday they'll join the procession themselves.”

    In recent years, this folk celebration has received national attention on social media, leading to a surge in visitors from all over the country. “It really feels to me like more out-of-town tourists came to see the procession this year,” Ye says.

    Translator: Jiang Lüyue; editors: Ding Yining and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: A “shenjiang” goes on a street in Jinfeng Town, Fuzhou, Feb. 16, 2024. Wu Dong for Sixth Tone)