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Most expensive lucky chimes are No. 1, 8, 88, 108 ...

DENNIS Chen and his girlfriend are going to the Maldives for Spring Festival. Like many Shanghainese, Chen loves traveling to warm places for the long break.

A 26-year-old financial consultant, he works day and night without much free time. The couple wants to leave early to get as much fun in the sun as possible - leaving on the Lunar New Year's Eve, January 25. The first day of the Chinese Year of the Ox is January 26.

But they can't leave early. Family says "no."

For nearly 20 years, Chen's family has maintained the tradition of chiming the bell at Shanghai's Longhua Temple on Lunar New Year's Eve.

For Chen's parents and grandparents, striking the bell just before midnight and ringing in new year of happiness and luck.

Chen's family is far from alone in honoring this tradition. In recent years, December 31, New Year's Eve, has become increasingly for striking bells and burning joss sticks.

Traditionally, the bell rings 108 times to announce the new year. Usually, the first toll starts around 11:45pm, with eight-second intervals. Customs differ in other temples.

Some say the number 108 comes from Buddhist traditions - it indicates 108 problems one could encounter in life. People say that listening to the sweet, resonant chimes on New Year's Eve help clear away problems, increasing wisdom and would help clearing problems, increasing one's wisdom and spirituality.

Others say 108 is a numeral indication of a year, based on ancient Chinese calculation of the calendar.

In ancient China's lunar calendar, people counted 360 days a year and five days in a period/week, which makes it 72 periods/weeks in a year.

If you add 72 weeks, 24 solar terms and 12 months, it comes to 108.

Nowadays, bell ringing is not limited to the traditional 108 times, since most temples sell bell-tolling tickets at varying prices, depending on the number.

Usually, the tickets within 108 chimes are more expensive; so are tickets with lucky numbers 8 (in Chinese, 8 or ba means fortune), or any number with 8.

The bell-chiming tickets in general range from a few yuan to 100,000 yuan (US$14,630) - depending on the number and fame of the temple.

In recent years, many famous temples have been auctioning off the first 10 numbers.

Shanghai and neighboring areas have many fine temples preparing to welcome the Lunar New Year.

Here are four:

Hanshan Temple in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, has always been famous for its bells, mentioned in poems from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Hanshan is especially famous for its bell ceremony on December 31; it also tolls the bell for the Lunar New Year.

Lingyin Temple, or the Temple of Soul's Retreat in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, dates back 1,600 years.

The beautiful natural setting draws many visitors.

Longhua and Jade Buddha temples are both in Shanghai. Longhua, the oldest in the city, has always been a favorite for locals. Jade Buddha Temple houses two jade Buddhas.

All temples are within two hours' drive from downtown Shanghai. Each spot has its distinctive charms. Consider price, accommodation, nearby sights, transport, and so on.

Hanshan Temple

Among thousands of temples in China, Hanshan Temple is neither the oldest (at least 1,300 years old) nor the most beautiful. But it is one of the most famous, probably the most celebrated. Almost all Chinese know about the temple from Tang Dynasty poet Zhang Ji's poem.

About 1,300 years ago, poet Zhang visited Suzhou after failing the Imperial Examination. At the time, it was the only way for intellectuals to become government officials and acquire wealth.

Zhang had to wait another three years for the next examination and hoped to be encouraged by the beautiful scenery in Suzhou. But the beautiful buildings and graceful gardens didn't help.

At night, Zhang asked the sailor to dock a boat outside the temple - he planned to sleep onboard. Filled with disappointment over the exam and worried about telling his family, Zhang woke up at midnight, feeling even worse in the dark, silent night.

He needed to relieve his depression. He wanted to write a poem but something was lacking, he was waiting for inspiration.

On the same night, a young monk reluctantly awoke and rushed to ring the bell - it was the duty of novice monks to ring it at midnight.

The young monk grabbed the freezing stick and struck the bell heavily. The young poet in the boat was thrilled - the ring was his inspiration. It reminded him of his childhood when he accompanied his mother to temples.

And that became the night that Zhang wrote one of his most famous poems, describing his homesickness and sadness, and using the temple, the bell, the bridge and water at night.

The poem is still used in primary school textbooks.

With that melancholy poem, Hanshan Temple's fame spread and it surpassed those older temples and those with more famous names. Although the temple has been destroyed and rebuilt for times and the original bell has been lost, it is still an important stop on any visit.

Visitors usually line up in front of the bell tower waiting for their turn to ring the famous bell three times, for 5 yuan.

It is useless, the sages say, to ring a bell more than three times, as the basics are covered in three strikes: fu, lu, shou, literally meaning happiness, fortune and longevity. More won't hurt you, but it won't help either.

Hanshan Temple is more famous than others for the bell-ringing ceremony on December 31 rather than the Lunar New Year's Eve. On December 31 around midnight, the head monk hosts the ceremony and strikes the bell 108 times. Visitors are not allowed to touch the bell that day. On Chinese New Year's Eve, they can buy bell-chiming tickets, just as they can in other temples.

Since the old bell has become decrepit and the sound is poor, the temple has built a new bell - 5.1 meters in diameter - covered with Buddhist texts.

Lingyin Temple

The temple is the oldest one in Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang Province, built more than 1,600 years ago. According to legend, an Indian monk passed Hangzhou on his spiritual journey and was drawn to the heavenly natural scenery and mountains.

The monk believed that such spectacular scenery demonstrated the gods and goddesses lived there. So he built the temple and called it Lingyin, literally meaning gods are hiding. Now, it's also translated as Temple of the Soul's Retreat.

For 1,600 years, many famous intellectuals have left their footsteps and calligraphy there. They are attracted by the intriguing contrast of the grand temple "hiding" between mountains.

The temple has a part in many legends about the Buddhist monk Daoji (1130-1207). Many consider him the incarnation of the Taming Dragon Arhat, one of the 18 legendary arhats.

Commonly known as Ji Gong, Daoji was a monk at Lingyin Temple and was considered a mad monk by others for his shabby appearance and unorthodox behavior - he ate meat and drank wine, two common taboos for monks.

The eccentric monk was finally expelled from the temple and traveled around the country. He appears in many folk tales in which he uses his magical power to help people in need.

When he was alive, the rich, the powerful and other conventional monks hated Daoji, while the poor, the weak and the vulnerable considered him a saint. After his death, Taoists were the first to consider him a deity, followed by the Buddhists.

Longhua Temple and Jade Buddha Temple

Longhua Temple is a famous attraction and religious venue in Shanghai for its 1,600-year history and the crowded temple fair. It's a mystery when the first stone was laid, but the earliest record about the temple from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) describes it as ancient.

Lack of facts has never stood in the way of a good story.

One of such tales about its origin is based on its name Longhua - long means dragon.

Long ago an Indian prince passed the area and was struck by the beauty of the site where Longhua Temple stands today.

He decided to live there for a while and savor its purity.

The site was beautiful because a king dragon had built his palace there; he was enraged the prince had encroached upon his territory and planned to frighten him away with magic.

Instead, however, the magical beast was touched as the prince recited Buddhist sutras - he moved out to make way for the mortal.

The prince turned the palace into a temple and named it after the dragon.

It was also said that the prince taught the peasants how to make sugar.

In addition to the bell-chiming ceremony on Lunar New Year's Eve, Longhua Temple is also famous for the temple fair on March 3 on the lunar calendar every year. People burn joss sticks and pray to the Laughing Buddha since his incarnation Budai died on that day.

The Longhua Temple fair has become the largest one and has the longest history in eastern China. Today, it has food, arts and crafts from everywhere since people nationwide flock to the fair.

The Jade Buddha Temple was built around 100 years ago, but it is famous for the two jade Buddha sculptures inside, the largest 1.9 meters high and 3.4 meters in diameter.

The temple was built to house the statues.

A pious monk traveled thousands of kilometers on a mission and passed what is now Myanmar, a region famous for its jade and minerals.

The monk found five huge pieces of jade and hired carvers for five Buddhas.

He passed Shanghai on his way back to Putuo Mountain, Zhejiang Province, and left two sculptures behind in Shanghai.


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