Listening to the solemn temple bells at midnight on New Year's Eve is a tradition in some Asian countries - like singing 'auld lang syne' in the West. The sound of the bell bids farewell to the past and heralds a new beginning. The temple bell is struck 108 times, symbolising the departure of as many worldly worries as the chime dissipates in the midnight air. Many Chinese temples are famous for their bells, which have inspired great poems over the ages. But as China enters the market economy, the bell has become a commodity. The right to strike a temple bell at midnight is for sale. Since the Cold Mountain Temple in Suzhou pioneered the auction in 1996, other temples in the prosperous eastern provinces quickly joined this lucrative business. For three years in a row, a liquor company bought the right to the first strike of the bell at Cold Mountain for 100,000 yuan (HK$93,000). Some less famous temples offered a range of prices: first strike for 500 yuan, subsequent strikes from 200 to 300 yuan. The successful merchandising of this intangible asset has stirred debate. For some, the practise is an acceptable economic exercise. Others argue that the sound of the bell is a cultural resource belonging to the public, which should not be put up for sale. In the relentless drive to maximise profits, the market economy has left precious little free to the public. Granted, the sound of the bell is free, but the mercenary motive has sullied the sentiment for the listeners. Experts also pointed out that striking the bell required skill. The strikes should be paced exactly 10 seconds apart. The monks began striking the bell at 11:42pm and ended on the dot of midnight. The random strikes by lay people are a profanity and an assault to listeners' ears. Some commentators believe the government should stop the merchandising of cultural resources. This poses a dilemma - just as the Chinese government is prepared to grant religious institutions more autonomy, the public is asking for more involvement from the government. President Jiang Zemin laid down some progressive guidelines to make religion and socialism adapt to each other. Earlier this month, Premier Zhu Rongji, in a visit to the State Religious Affairs Bureau, urged cadres to bring harmony to followers of religious faith and non-believers, so as to ensure social stability. The Great Enlightenment Temple at Yanzhou, at the behest of the local religious bureau, decided to stop auctioning the strike rights last month. Instead, the rich and the poor queued up to strike the bell at no cost. The cacophony was shared by all.