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December 26, 2011

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Rich bell-ringers pay high tolls

STRIKING a temple bell 108 times starting at midnight on New Year's Eve is said to absolve sin and bring luck, but VIPs and businessmen routinely buy up all the costly tickets for the frequently televised events. Chen Ye reports on the toll.

To many Chinese people, New Year's Eve means more than parties, good cheer and New Year's resolutions. Striking bells, burning incense and praying to Buddha are traditions that draw thousands of people to temples.

They literally ring in the new year by striking temple bells to banish the past year's bad karma and pray for a good year ahead. Bells play an important part in Buddhist and other religious rituals, the fading sound reminding us that life also fades.

"For ages, bells and drums have been traditional musical instruments in China, and after Buddhism was introduced, bells became more meaningful, because in Buddhism tolling the bell is a way to forgive sin," says Tian Zhaoyuan, director of the Anthropology and Folklore Institute at East China Normal University.

The most significant point of ringing the bell is to build up confidence for the new year, and provide psychological comfort, he says.

From modest, devout Buddhists to wealthy businessmen, there are huge crowds every New Year's Eve at temples around China and tickets are sold for a chance to ring bells.

Wealthy businessmen especially like to spend a large sum of money in ceremonies to pray for a better year. Sometimes the event is live on television, so there's status attached.

Since the first tolling of the bell at night is said to be the most auspicious, it's also the costliest and many people vie for it. Sometimes the honor is reserved for officials or VIPs. Sometimes there is bidding for the first and other lucky numbers, 88, 99, 33, double numbers, and the final 108.

The first and the last are the most expensive in Shanghai, expected to cost almost 30,000 yuan (US$4,732) each.

Everywhere the bells are rung 108 times, a symbolic number in Buddhism.

Why 108?

For years people have discussed why the bell tolls 108 times and there are various explanations. Here are three reasons.

According to Buddhism, people have to suffer 108 kinds of troubles and difficulties during their lifetime and one woe is said to be banished with each striking of the bell. So ideally, people should ring the bell 108 times, starting at midnight.

Buddhism also speaks of 108 passions derived from the senses and the mind.

There's a more complicated version proposed by a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scholar, involving the lunar calendar and calculation of 12 months, 24 solar terms, 72 hou (five days equal one hou). The hou represent different natural phenomena, such as bird migration, the birth of a mantis and other events signifying change. So, 12 plus 24 plus 72 equals 108.

It's also good luck to ring bells throughout the day and many people in Shanghai pay temple admission and then an additional 200-300 yuan to strike a temple bell three times.

For visitors and pilgrims, each strike has a special meaning - blessing, wealth and long life.

Since thousands of people want to ring bells, selling them tickets is a relatively new way to make money, which are sometimes used to finance temple operations and upkeep, usually financed by the government. Some proceeds also go to charity.

But selling the VIP tickets is where the real money comes from, the big-ticket tolling.

"Every year many private businessmen ring the bell in Donglin Temple," according to Wang Keqi, vice director of the Jinshan Tourism Bureau. Donglin Temple is in Jinshan District.

"The first strike and the 108th strikes each cost 29,999 yuan this year."

New Year's Eve VIP tickets cost a minimum of 2,012 yuan (for the year 2012) to take part in the 108 rings.

It's first-come-first-serve, though some VIP tickets are reserved in advance.

Compared with the general public, private business people may feel more stressed, given the risks involved and thus feel the need for a lot of New Year's luck, and status.

A self-employed textiles entrepreneur surnamed Wang, who declined to give his first name, says he joins the bell-tolling event every year.

"I don't pray for anything special, just blessing. I hope my whole family is well and business improves," Wang says. He asks to be the ninth person to ring the bell after midnight.

Ringing the bell is fun and meaningful because the cost of tickets is finally used for religion and charity projects, he says, adding that it's better to spend money on ringing bells than on eating and drinking.

Many companies also purchase New Year's bell-ringing tickets to be among the first 108, considering the cost a charitable contribution.

Ringing a bell can be very meaningful, comforting and a statement of faith.

However, the bell-ringing platform is also a showcase for high-rolling businessmen who frequently get together for the often televised event, booking in advance and buying up all the tickets. Ordinary people never have a chance at one of the 108 rings.

Folk expert Tian Zhaoyuan says if the event becomes too commercialized and tickets cost too much, then the whole event is meaningless and even runs counter to its essential meaning. He suggests at least lowering the entrance fees and cost of bell-ringing tickets throughout the day.

Donglin Temple
Jinshan District, Shanghai
Donglin Temple in Jinshan District was first built in 1308 and is one of the district's prime tourist attractions.
General admission: 5,000 tickets costing 30 yuan per person
Admission for bell-tolling after 108 strikes: 299 yuan
Address: 150 Donglin Street, Zhujing Town, Jinshan District

Longhua Temple
Xuhui District, Shanghai
Longhua Temple is designed in the style of a Song Dynasty (960-1279) monastery and is the largest and most complete temple complex in Shanghai.
General admission: 200 yuan; 6,000 tickets available
Admission for ringing the bell after 108 strikes: 518 yuan
Address: 2853 Longhua Rd

Hanshan Temple
Suzhou, Jiangsu Province
Hanshan Temple in Fengqiao Town is around 5 kilometers west of the old city of Suzhou. It dates back to the Tianjian era (502–519) of the reign of Emperor Wu of Liang.
General admission: 20 yuan
Admission for ringing after 108 strikes: 380 yuan
Address: 24 Hanshan Temple Lane, Fengqiao, Suzhou


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