11 Surreal Photos From A Pagan Festival In Rural China

In January or February every year, much of the Asian world celebrates the Chinese New Year. That important holiday comes with regional traditions, including the elaborate pagan She Huo festival, celebrated in rural villages in the northwestern Shanxi region.

Villagers dress in elaborate costumes of gods, spirits, and mythical beasts while singing, dancing, and performing to commemorate the 2,500-year-old festival. Chinese photographer Zhang Xiao recently traveled to Shanxi to capture the festival in several cities. He shared some of the photos with us here, and you can check out the rest in his new book, “Shanxi.”

The She Huo Festival is a festival dedicated to the gods of earth and fire. “She” literally means “God of Earth” and huo means “God of Fire.”

Shanxi No.1

Zhang Xiao

During the festival, villagers dress in elaborate costumes to represent She and Huo, as well as other spirits and deities.

Many villagers then participate in a She Huo procession to show off the craftsmanship of their costumes and makeup.

A person riding a horse leads the procession, followed by a banner, flag holders, performers, and a drum and gong band.

Villagers have parades as well as performances of drama and martial arts, in which costumed villagers act out myths and ancient stories.

During the festival, stages are set up in the streets so that villagers can hear singing and dancing everywhere.

“When I first witnessed the participants line up and then parade around the village, I repeatedly kept asking myself whether I had literally stepped into some kind of surreal wonderland,” Zhang said.

During the festival, villagers set up cone-shaped piles of firewood outside the door of every house. Folk art troupes then perform beside the fire, while homeowners give them treats.

Every village has its own performing-art troupe.

The festival used to be very popular in most cities in northwest China, but Zhang says that many city dwellers have begun to lose their traditions.

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