TAIYUAN, Feb. 9 (Xinhua) -- One day after the Lantern Festival, residents in Xiadongzhai Village, north China's Shanxi Province, had quick breakfasts before assembling for a long-anticipated occasion.
The horse racing festival, held on the 16th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar in the village, is a Spring Festival custom with a history of over 1,800 years. It has also been listed as a national intangible cultural heritage.
At about 9 a.m., the festival got underway. The crowd burst into loud cheers, watching horses carrying riders dressed in ancient costumes, as they sprinted to the finish line.
According to Dong Huping, a horse racing inheritor, the tradition was said to have been established during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) to commemorate messengers, who served as a valuable means of communication in ancient times, especially in times of war.
The event has taken root in Xiadongzhai, as the village has since ancient times been acting as an important commercial hub, while its location was also considered important in terms of military strategy.
"The nature of the horse racing competition today remains almost the same as what happened in the old days," Dong said. "For example, we can see the riders carrying flags on their backs, while the horses are without saddles. This is because messengers often had to hit the road hastily, which meant that they had no time to saddle the horse and could only rely on their brilliant riding skills to maintain balance."
Nowadays, the horse racing festival has become a cultural tourism industry brand, integrating parades, folk performances and fireworks show held during the Spring Festival holiday.
Every year around the Chinese Lunar New Year, about 30,000 tourists pay visits to the village, which has significantly increased the income of local residents.
To better preserve and further promote its development, youngsters are encouraged to master and polish their riding skills under the guidance of veteran "messengers," and to participate in the annual event.
At the same time, the village has established a horse racing training center, raised funds and purchased new horses, costumes and props to woo new blood, to pass on and carry forward this ancient skill.
"Participation in horse racing also helps the young generation develop a stronger sense of identity and pride in their hometown," Dong said.