By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese astronauts took center stage on Friday at state television's annual glitzy, kitsch and often much derided marathon show welcoming in the lunar new year, but for many viewers a performing donkey was the star.
Traditionally, hundreds of millions gather round their televisions to watch the "CCTV Spring Festival Gala," a more than four-hour showcase of skits, music and dance which has been a TV staple since the first edition was broadcast in 1983.
Last year's show was panned online for being too nationalistic and propaganda heavy, especially songs praising the Communist Party.
While this year's event was more crowd-pleasing, featuring wholesome Chinese teenyboppers TFBoys, the ruling party and its achievements were never going to be entirely absent.
Backed by a large Chinese flag, 11 Chinese astronauts stepped forward on the main stage to introduce themselves and place their hands in clay moulds which will displayed at a museum.
"Our space flight ranks are increasingly growing in strength," said Yang Liwei, China's first man in space. "We welcome even more people to join our ranks, to build our country into a strong space nation."
Among the handpicked studio guests, five old revolutionaries who fought in China's civil war in the 1930s were given a warm welcome.
They were followed by a military choir singing in front of a large screen showing fighter jets scrambling, China's first aircraft carrier and what appeared to be shots of one of the Chinese occupied islands in the disputed South China Sea.
It was not all serious though.
Swimmer Fu Yuanhui, who became a social media celebrity thanks to her humorous pool-side interviews at last year's Rio Olympics on topics ranging from menstruation to boys, performed in a short comedy routine.
A donkey who bowed on command and offered his hoof to shake hands with a performer delighted many.
"When that donkey came on, bowing his head and shaking hands, it really lit up the program. It was really great," wrote art critic Zhang Zujian on China's Twitter-like Weibo service.
The lunar new year, which officially starts on Saturday, is the only holiday of the year for lots of Chinese, and is normally marked by riotous displays of fireworks and countless firecrackers.
But Beijing was quieter than normal, with the government cracking down this year to prevent a recurrence of the smog that has chocked large parts of northern China this winter.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)