Open-air fairs becomes attractive for young Chinese
By Lu Yan  ·  2024-01-15  ·   Source: NO.3 JANUARY 18, 2024
Marketgoers line up to buy snacks at a daji in Hanchuan, Hubei Province, on November 17, 2023 (XINHUA)

Dazzling arrays of seasonal ingredients, enthusiastic calls from vendors lined up along the bustling street, shoppers jostling each other in crowds, and wafting cook smoke rising between the stalls… Dajis, or big open-air fairs, similar to farmer's markets, used to be regular events for trading goods, mostly produce and cooked food, which only took place in rural areas. Now, they are enjoyed by urbanites as well as rural residents.

Previously seen as a shopping heaven for the frugal older generations, now these markets are becoming increasingly popular among younger people, who are abandoning big shopping malls in favor of this more lively and economical ways of living.

Thriving fairs 

Dajis typically take place on specific dates of the lunar calendar, for example, on dates with five or seven as the last digit. It is also common for them to be held on traditional Chinese holidays such as the Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year, and Mid-Autumn Festival, as well as other local festivals. The exact dates and frequency of dajis vary from region to region.

Dajis evolved from the folk custom of trading goods, which can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220). In the old days, due to inconvenient transportation and underdeveloped communication, it was challenging for households to exchange items to meet their needs for daily necessities. As a solution, people made agreements to gather at a specific location on a particular day. They would trade their surplus items for the goods they needed. In addition to being venues for buying and selling, dajis are an occasion for people to socialize and enjoy entertainment.

Residents from surrounding areas flock to these markets. They follow enticing aromas to food stalls, where they indulge in bowls of steamed dumplings or hot noodle soup. They engage in casual conversations with the stall owners, sharing stories of their daily lives. Afterward, they purchase some fresh fruit and vegetables from local farmers, priced far lower than those in supermarkets, and embark on their journey back home.

Wang Yang, a 30-year-old Beijing professional who was born and raised in a rural area of Pingdingshan, Henan Province, said one of his fondest childhood memories is going to dajis with his family around the Spring Festival holiday and buying candies and new clothes. "There were also performances like folk operas and dances, and even game machines carried on trucks for us to play. It was family quality time for pure fun," he told Beijing Review.

Wang said that the dajis in city suburbs nowadays are not as bustling or entertaining as the ones in his hometown, but people can still find a good bargain on a variety of goods—fruit, vegetables, fresh fish, snacks, clothing, shoes, hats, antiques, calligraphy and paintings—all giving a taste of the authentic local lifestyle.

Dajis also attract travelers and help boost local tourism. In Guiyang, Guizhou Province, where several ethnic groups reside and ethnic culture thrives, the local tourism authority hosts market fairs featuring ethnic snacks and artworks. This helps promote the region's intangible cultural heritage to visitors.

These markets have also evolved variants in cities, such as those dedicated to books, fashionable clothes, technological products, as well as cultural and creative products catering to younger people. Instead of taking place in suburban areas, these city markets are often held near major business districts, shopping malls or tourist sites. Most of the vendors are young people.

However, dajis also face challenges, including maintaining sanitation and food hygiene, ensuring fair trading and preventing crowds from causing traffic congestion, which require continuous efforts by regulatory authorities and market organizers.

A handicraft stall selling Spring Festival gifts at a daji in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, on January 6 (CNSPHOTO)

A place for the mind 

Through promotion on social media, dajis have also become places for young people, especially college students and those new to the workforce, to hang out.

Wang Siying, a sophomore student from a university in Beijing, usually gets up early in the morning on the days when Shahe Daji in the city's suburban Changping District is held. One of the most renowned market fairs in the district, if not the city, it covers an area of approximately 70,000 square meters and has over 2,000 stalls. It usually opens three times a week and 10 hours a day from 7 a.m.

Visiting the market every week has become a habit for Wang Siying. When she arrives, she typically heads straight to the fruit and vegetable section. The produce is usually transported directly from the fields and is usually swarmed by customers before it can even be unloaded from the trucks. Not only is the produce fresh, the prices are also only half what they would be in the city center.

Wang Siying also likes browsing the antique section. Although she doesn't really buy much, "It's interesting to listen to the stall owners talking about the origins and use of those antiques," she told Beijing Review. Born in a city in Shandong Province, Wang Siying said dajis help her get in touch with the rural lifestyle and gain more life skills, like how to select the sweetest strawberries.

Nine-to-fiver Wang Yang also likes to go to dajis but for slightly different reasons from Wang Siying. "They are a break from the fast-paced and stressful working life," he said. "The vendors' calls are more like soothing white noise."

Also, as most products at the markets are cheaper than those in groceries or supermarkets, especially when buying in bulk, shopping at dajis can save him more than 1,000 yuan ($139) a month. "Besides, taking a long walk through the market is also a kind of exercise. So it's good for both the body and soul, and the wallet."

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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