By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Two of China's most famous and well-loved pop stars stole the show at state television's annual glitzy, often much mocked marathon show welcoming in the lunar new year on Thursday, singing their first public duet in two decades.
Traditionally, hundreds of millions gather around their televisions to watch the "CCTV Spring Festival Gala," a more than four-hour showcase of skits, music and dance that has been a TV staple since the first edition was broadcast in 1983.
But it was superstars Faye Wong and Na Ying many people tuned in to see this holiday, singing an old school-style ballad called "Years", with some online polls rating their appearance the most eagerly anticipated part of the show.
While neither spoke to the audience after their performance, fans quickly took to Chinese social media in an outpouring of praise, though some said their appearance was too fleeting.
"Did you see? This is my mother. Isn't she awesome?" Wong's singer daughter Leah Dou wrote on the Twitter-like Weibo site, attaching a picture of herself as a baby pointing at a photo of her mother, an image that soon attracted more than 500,000 likes.
Beijing-born Wong's icy demeanor and eclectic music tastes ranging from syrupy love songs to off-kilter trip-hop and Buddhist-infused folktronica have made her one of the biggest stars in the Chinese speaking world of the last three decades.
Na, who sung at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, shot to fame in the 1990s with her hit "Conquering" and has more recently become a staple of Chinese television singing talent shows.
While this year's show had other crowd-pleasers, including wholesome Chinese teenyboppers TFBoys for the third year running, China's ruling Communist Party was always going to be present.
Several songs praised the "New Era", a reference to President Xi Jinping's political theory about making China even stronger through socialism, cemented since late last year in the party's constitution.
Another skit celebrated China's relationship with Africa, a key part of Xi's Belt and Road initiative, complete with an African actress speaking in Chinese and quoting Xi.
The lunar new year of the dog, which officially starts on Friday, is the only holiday of the year for many Chinese, and is normally marked by riotous bursts of fireworks and firecrackers.
But many large cities, including Beijing, have heavily restricted their use again this year to help prevent smog.
It won't be a happy holiday for all.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post said Xi's corruption crackdown means Beijing's main jail for top level prisoners is too full to allow family members to come and have a traditional new year meal with inmates.
(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; editing by Mark Heinrich)