Every year, on the 13th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar, the small hamlet of Majie in central Henan province becomes the scene for one of the largest folk festivals in the world. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the country descend on the village of 5,000 inhabitants for the Majie Quyi Fair, an open-air spectacular which draws well over a thousands performers who sing traditional ballads or tell stories, accompanied by bamboo clappers and drums. All around a large wheat field on the edge of the village, performers try to attract the attention of visitors with their tales of heroes, virtuous ladies and patriots who died for their country. The beginnings of the festival are not clearly documented but it is said to have started during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1386) and one of the more popular tales about the early festivals revolves around a monk who spent his entire life wandering around the country, spreading Buddhist thought via the medium of storytelling. One year, on the date the festival is still held today, he is said to have arrived in Majie, in the knowledge that his life was coming to an end. Not wanting to disturb any of the villagers, he dragged himself to a wheat field north of the village, sat cross legged and died. The locals built a temple on this site and story tellers began to gather here to continue his oral tradition.
Through the ages the nature of the stories has changed somewhat yet the unbroken tradition, while waxing and waning over the centuries, remains strong today. The three day celebration in 2017 drew an estimated 300,000 visitors and around 1,200 artists. The high point of the festival was said to have been in 1863 during the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) when each storyteller was asked to place a coin into a pot set up in the Temple of the God of Fire in the village. At the end of the day the organisers had counted 2,700 coins.
Today's performers mainly hail from Henan Zhuizi, a storytelling school in the province. Their subjects often revolve around a canon of the Four Classical Novels of Chinese literature: 'The Romance of the three Kingdoms', 'Water Margin', 'Journey to the West' and the 'Dream of the Red Chamber'. Collected and compiled over hundreds of years between 1390 and 1792, the novels are a collection of folk tales with hundreds of characters, many of whom are widely known and loved.
For the residents of Majie, the festival is a huge boon in a rural part of the country with few opportunities other than agriculture. To keep the annual event going, locals outdo each other with their offerings of cheap accommodation. In addition to enjoying the hubbub of the festival they take they make connections with visiting artists who are then booked to sing and tell stories at weddings and birthday parties. The presence of a famous artist at a family event is a badge of honour in rural communities. For the artists, in turn, a well paid gig at a private function can be welcome relief from a life of being on the road, travelling from one venue to the next.
Keen to preserve this unique, centuries-old tradition, the Chinese government recognised the Majie Folk Artists' Gathering in 2006 by including it on the list of the National Intangible Cultural Heritage drawn up by the State Council of China.
Panos photographer Justin Jin and writer Stefan Schumann travelled to Majie and witnessed the raucous festival unfold on a snow-covered meadow outside the village. A full text is available on request.