Spring Showers (Rain Water) yǔ shuǐ 雨水 Feb 19th

Rain drops splashing into water on pavementRain Water or Yǔshuǐ, Usui, Usu, or Vũ thủy is the 2nd solar term. It begins when the Sun reaches the celestial longitude of 330° and ends when it reaches the longitude of 345°. In the western calendar, it usually begins around 18 February and ends around 5 March. The first corresponding pentad for this solar term is: 獺祭魚, ‘Otters make offerings of fish’. As fish begin to swim upstream for spawning, they are hunted by otters, which are believed to offer the fish to heaven. The second pentad is: 鴻雁來, ‘The wild geese arrive’. As in the North America the wild geese begin to make their northward migration, following the onset of spring. The third pentad is: 草木萌動, ‘Trees and grass put forth shoots’. All these pentads are quite logical and reflective of what is truly happening in nature at the time.

Pond surrounded by trees just turning green on overcast dayWhere I live the weather warmed up on Saturday the 1oth and it rained all day, sometime hard and sometimes merely showers. It continued raining through the night and all the next day. When I checked the weaher for the next ten days, there was not a single sunny day in the forecast, all were overcast and cloudy and many were predicted to be rainy. In China it is traditional that Rain Water signals an increase in rainfall and rise in temperature which signals the real coming of spring. Frozen rivers begin to thaw and  and trees, bushes and grass turn green again.

According to an old Chinese saying, the rainfall in spring is as precious as oil. In northern China, spring drought is common and this season accounts for only 10 to 15 percent of annual average rainfall. Therefore, Rain Water is considered as a key period for irrigation.

Extra care is needed to cope with a returning cold spell in the late spring that often happen during Rain Water period. The fast increase in air humidity due to rainfall can result in lower temperatures. It is strongly advised to continue dressing warmly especially for the elderly and children. In truth when the rain moved in that Saturday the temperature dropped from the predicted high. The heat cycled on in the thrift shop where I volunteer and the dampness made people feel colder.

Rain coming downaround green tree, causing mistFrom the first day of Rain Water on, rainfall and the moisture from the ground are increasing, but dew and frost can still be seen in the morning. People are advised to take good care of the spleen and stomach during the period, according to the theory of the traditional Chinese medicine. Honey, Chinese date, Chinese yam and snow fungus can serve the purpose to nourish the two organs.

As with many conditions of cold and damp a bowl of a nutritious congee is considered best for the body. People in Beijing often eat porridge cooked with rehmannia glutinosa libosch, to resist cold and wet weather and eliminate heat from the blood. It is one of the 50 fundamental herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine, where it has the name Sheng Di huang ( [生]地黄). It is often sold as gān dì huáng ( ), gān meaning “dried”. It is also good for people with constipation, arthritis and headaches.

I continue to eat warming foods all during spring but especially through Rain Water. Many of the good luck New Year’s foods  fall into this category fortunately. And I continue to wear sweaters and warm clothes until the dampness is burned off by higher temperatures. This is also when I think about liver tonics and detoxifying cleanses to help the liver. I don’t overindulge that much during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to the western New Year’s celebration but I still consider this a good idea. Those who do overindulge should consider using this time to help the liver and help your body to get ready for the active months.

Close up of rain and mist around tree branch

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Alchemy – To Begin the Work

Alchemical symbol of the squared circle

By Cmdndms (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Every effort goes with mistakes
as fire goes with smoke.
Therefore one should not give up
the work that corresponds with ones nature
because it is full of defects.
Bhagavad-gita 18:48

The Great Work  or Magnum Opus in Latin,  is an alchemical name for the process which leads to the creation of the philosopher’s stone. It has been used to describe personal and spiritual transmutation attached to laboratory processes and chemical color changes, used as a model for the individuation process in psychology, and as a device in art and literature. It makes a ready model for the hard work of examining the self and improving it, which was my intention in exploring alchemy.

The alchemists often repeat that the entire work is only one process, requiring only one simple action. This action is named with different terms depending on the point of view one takes. It is called purification, washing, cleaning, warming, cooking, distilling and so on. Some alchemists put all those terms in a seemingly chronological order.

Close up of raven on postThe magnum opus had a variety of symbols ad colors attached to it. The above symbol is the illustration of squaring the circle, used in the 17th century to represent the great work. Birds like the raven, swan, and phoenix could be used to represent the progression through the colors. The four basic stages were paired with a color; nigredo with black, albedo with white, citrinitas with yellow, rubedo with red. The symbolic language was meant to convey information, but to receive and understand this information it requires a different mindset than most people have in our modern society. It is not meant to be a quick process, for one thing, but it also requires a level of personal honestly, self examination and discipline that people often find difficult today.

Even in the beginning, in the Great Work was considered to be performed on the alchemist as well as the the materials he worked with. The Philosopher’s Stone is seen as the manifestation of universal spirit, present in all creation, and thus also in the alchemist himself.

“Almost everybody who has heard about the philosopher’s stone and its power, asks where it can be found. The philosopher always answers twofold. First, they say that Adam has taken the philosopher’s stone with him from Paradise, and that it is now present within you, within me, and within everybody, and that the birds of far countries has taken it with them. Second, the philosophers answer that it can be found in the earth, in the mountains, in the air and in the river. Now what way should one seek? To me, both ways; but each way has its own way.” (Michael Maier, 1617).

The necessity of having the alchemist properly prepared before engaging in the work is one reason for the symbolism and allegory.  Mystery is important in alchemy. It serves a double function. Of course it protects the powerful knowledge from misuse by the uninitiated and unethical. But perhaps more importantly, it promotes a state of mind conducive to creative thinking, excites the senses to greater sensitivity and awakens the soul to nature.

In the words of Albert Einstein “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the art of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eye are clos

To preserve the mystery and all it represents requires a strength of character that must be developed before all things for the alchemist. But before one can build the strength of character to keep the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone one must be of sound body and mind. There are real reasons that alchemy developed a deep relationship with both physical and mental healing.

So how does a person begin the work? In many of the same ways people ordinarily begin to work on improving themselves. Firstly making a determination to do so. Then making an honest and careful assessment of the state of one’s body and mind. In undertaking the great work you will need focus, determination, physical energy and mental stamina. You will need discretion, honesty and openmindedness. You cannot be impatient. You cannot avoid the unpleasant when it raises its ugly head. But these things are far from unachievable and they are indeed part of the Great Work. To explore the higher levels of yourself and the universe you just need to climb slowly and carefully and take the lessons of the lower levels into your nature. Many have taken this path before and found the rewards well worth the effort.

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Caturday Thoughts – Our New Tree!!

Tuxedo cat Milk on cat tree cradle

Milk on the new cat tree.

I’ve wanted to post about our new tree and somehow never got to it. It came hoe with me after Thanksgiving. So did a rare and very nasty bought of sinusitis and bronchitis that laid me up for three weeks.

Steve of Furwood Forest, the creator of these wonderful trees noticed I was under the weather and called to make sure I got home OK and got the tree in without trouble. I had only just started to sneeze and sniffle but he noticed, he’s a really nice person. By the time I recovered I had so many things to catch up on and I wanted to have some kind of Christmas celebration so I was busy, busy, busy. Then Simba got sick. Now sadly, she is gone, the holidays are over and I am caught up with things.

I am am trying to master the Go Pro camera I got so I can send some film of the cats using the tree to Steve for his Facebook page.  I have got a few clips that are decent although unedited I will post for him. I hope to get better. He says people love the trees but only send him pictures of them siting in whatever room they’ve placed them but with no cats in sight. That’s why I though a little film clip will be good. Catching the cats doing something photogenic is not always easy. They often finish what they’re doing before I get to the camera or have it ready. And the lighting in my house is abysmal, so with ineptitude with the Go Pro quite a bit has come out to poorly to use. Now I am committed to this post I will have to work extra hard t get some got shots, either still or film.

Well Marty Scorsese has no worries for sure, but I got to show the cats. Actually I am rather happy I figured out the best way to save the clips off the Go Pro onto my laptop, research the best service to use to transfer them, singn up for a free Vimeo account and get the clips embedded. I have to say Vimeo makes things remarkably easy. Now I just need some better lighting!!

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Chinese New Year Feb 16

Dozens of round red Chinese lanterns lit against a black backgroundThis year, according to the Chinese almanac is the Year of the Dog. This particular Year of the Dog is the year of the brown earth dog, brown being a color associated with earth. There are a lot of customs associated with the days of a traditional Chinese New Year. Most people are familiar with the use of firecrackers and many have seen the public dragon dances. We are far from any Chinese community now and the cats do not like firecrackers, so we focus on the aspects of New Year that have to do with cleaning and food for bringing in good luck and prosperity. Even cats want good luck, health and prosperity.

Close up of large red Chinese fireworks

As with many other traditions and holidays the Chinese give the house a very thorough cleaning just before the two week New Year celebrations begin. Out with the dirt goes that bad luck and your house is open and welcome for new good luck to come in. Even if you scoff at superstition and the idea of good or bad luck, most people like a clean house and I think there is a kind of positive subconscious programming in this kind of ritual. So I do a thorough cleaning, too. I also made sure I had a haircut before the New Year. Traditionally, you shouldn’t  cut hair during the New Year, you might cut off your luck.You have to do it ahaed of time. The lousy plumbing in my house has made the water damaging to my hair even with a filtered shower head. So going for a haircut is a good custom for me and is the first step toward healthier hair in the new year. 

 

There are special,activities for almost every day of the two weeks of the entire Chinese celebration. I don’t have the relatives some days are dedicated to, like the day for son-in-laws.  But there are some I do make a point of observing. On the 5th day businesses open and it is the day to welcome the God of Wealth. Traditionally the lion dance teams would go to the business district streets and parade in the hopes businesses would ask them to perform a dance to bring prosperity and reward them with a red envelope.The first transaction of the day should be a successful one to bring in good business for the rest of the year. This cannot be done with internet businesses and there is no lion dance team in my town but I made a special point to honor the God of Wealth so I  can grow my business his year. There are many versions of the God of Wealth , known in general as Cai Shen or Tsai Shen. Any and all of them can be given offerings on this day.

Round table covered with Chinese banquet dishesNo Chinese celebration would be complete without a major focus on food. Eating and displaying tangerines and oranges is believed to bring good luck and fortune due to their pronunciation, and even writing. The Chinese for orange (and tangerine) is 橙 (chéng /chnng/), which sounds the same as the Chinese for ‘success’ (成). One of the ways of writing tangerine (桔 jú /jyoo/) contains the Chinese character for luck (吉 jí /jee/). Eating pomeloes, another citrus native to South and Southeast Asia is also thought to bring continuous prosperity. The more you eat, the more wealth it will bring, as the traditional saying goes. The Chinese for pomelo (柚 yòu /yo/) sounds like ‘to have’ (有 yǒu), except for the tone, and exactly like ‘again’ (又 yòu).

For the big dinner there are some classic requirements. You may not have all but you should have a few. The lucky seven dishes are:

Fish (usually a whole fish) In Chinese, “fish” (鱼 Yú /yoo/) sounds like ‘surplus’. Chinese people always like to have a surplus at the end of the year, because they think if they have managed to save something at the end of the year, then they can make more in the next year.

Noodles  The noodles for New Year are known as. Longevity noodles (长寿面 Chángshòu Miàn /chung-show myen/) and unsurprisingly symbolize a wish for longevity. They are meant to be symbolic of the eater’s life. They are longer than normal noodles and uncut, either fried and served on a plate, or boiled and served in a bowl with their broth.

Sweet rice balls 汤圆 (Tāngyuán ) is the main food for the Lantern Festival, however, in south China, people eat them throughout the Spring Festival. The pronunciation and round shape of tangyuan are associated with reunion and being together, so they really do fit with New Year celebrations.

Glutinous rice cake 年糕 (Niángāo) sounds like it means “‘getting higher year-on- by year”‘ in Chinese. To Chinese people’s thinking, this means the higher you advance in your studies, career or business, the more your life will improve. The main ingredients of niangao are sticky rice, sugar, and water but people use different things like chestnuts, Chinese dates, and lotus leaves to add flavor. Some of these additions also add a healthy touch to what is really not a health food as well as being tasty.

Spring rolls 春卷 (Chūnjuǎn)  get their name because they are traditionally eaten during the Spring Festival. It is a dish especially popular in East China. Spring rolls are a Cantonese dim sum dish of cylindrical-shaped rolls filled with vegetables, meat, or something sweet. Fillings are wrapped in thin dough wrappers, then fried, when the spring rolls are given their golden-yellow color.

Dumplings. There are so many kinds of dumplings  in China but for New Year people eat a certain kind. With a history of more than 1,800 years, these dumplings 饺子 (Jiǎdzi) are a classic Chinese food, and traditional for the New Year’s Eve banquet. They are most popular in North China. They can be made to look like Chinese silver ingots (which are not bars, but boat-shaped, oval, and turned up at the two ends). Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during the New Year celebrations, the more money you can make in the New Year.

So now you can make your own New Year’s Eve banquet. Since it is easy to make I give a basic recipe for the niángāo and you can add some of those healthy flavorings so you won’t feel so guilty. Not everyone has the time or the helpers to do the banquet but you can at least have a once a year treat. I looked at a lot of recipes and adapted this a little from this food blog.  No one else gave as many ways to prepare it, or described making it with banana leaves, She even has a pressure cooker version, but the post was getting a little long. That would save you from hours of steaming, you might want to check it out on What to Cook Today.

Ingredients

  • 600 grams glutinous rice flour  (not hard to find – in my small town Target)
  • 600 ml water
  • 500 grams light or dark brown sugar
  • 4-5 long sheets of banana leaves if frozen thawed first (in Asian and many Latino markets)

Instructions

  1. Blanch the banana leaves in hot boiling water for about 5 minutes to soften it. Then pat dry and set aside
  2. Place the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer or until sugar is melted. Remove from the heat and let it cool down a little bit
  3. Gradually stir in the glutinous rice flour into the sugar mixture. Stir to mix until they are smooth. You should have a brown color batter or tan if you use light brown sugar. Strain this batter into a container where you can easily strain the batter later if you see any lumps

Traditional Steamer Method:

  1. Prepare the steamer by bringing the water to a rolling boil. Cut the banana leaves into strips. Line the container with the strips first horizontally and then vertically, overlapping at the bottom of the dish. Do another layer diagonally, being sure to cover all the side and bottom of the dish. Repeat this pattern 2 more times. Pour the batter into the dish and leave about 1/2-inch at the top. You can trim an banana leaf sticking up at the top or just leave it.
  2. Place them inside the steamer and steam on high heat for 1 1/2 hours and then lower the heat and let it steam for another 1 1/2 hours. You need to refill the water in the steamer throughout the cooking process. Don’t let it dry out.
  3. The niangao will still appear soft at the end of cooking time and that’s very normal. You need to let the niangao cool down completely. Wrap them up with plastic wrapper and they will be ready in 2 days. By day 3, the niangao will be much more firm and can be sliced. After that it is best to keep them in the refrigerator, since there are no preservatives. Also, they do keep well in the freezer for several months.
  4. A popular way to serve them is to pan fry them in egg batter. Just slice the niangao to the size you like and dip them into the egg batter. Fry until golden brown and serve immediately.

Egg Batter for Frying Niángāo

2 large eggs, beaten                                                                                                                                2 Tbsp corn starch                                                                                                                              1/2 tsp salt

Slow Cooker Method:

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place the nian gao inside the slow cooker and then very carefully pour in the boiling water into the slow cooker up to the point where you fill up the batter. Cook on low for 8-10 hours. It will still appear somewhat soft, but that’s normal. Remove from the slow cooker and let it cool down completely. Then wrap them up and let them sit at room temperature for 2 days before you eat it or cook it with eggs.

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A Personal Experiment

Candlelit church interior through iron grill gatesIn a previous post on the Brother Cadfael mysteries I mentioned the practice of rising at midnight for prayer. I had often wondered how this was so easily accomplished by the monks. After the post I thought about it again. Why weren’t they dragging around the monastery bleary-eyed after never getting a decent night’s sleep. Surely some would have trouble either getting up at midnight or at dawn the next morning. So I did a little research and discovered the secret of the monks  amazing stamina. It actually was not amazing stamina at all. It was very ordinary energy levels and perfectly fulfilling sleep. It is we, the people of the post-industrial age, who are dragging our anchors, so to speak; low on energy and sleep deprived in spite of having the whole night to devote to getting it.

In the early 1990s, a team headed by Thomas A. Wehr, MD, a psychiatrist and then a sleep researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month. This was a shift of their light/dark schedule from their usual 16 hours of light and 8 hours of dark to only 10 hours of natural and artificial light each day. These durations of light and dark are similar to the natural length of day and night in winter. It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep. This is exactly the pattern of sleep required by the monks to meet their obligations of prayer.

So the monks were not struggling to rise at midnight, nor at dawn. It would seem this was the normal pattern of their sleep. The research would seem to show they lived in harmony not just with the prayer regime of the rule of St. Benedict but with their own natural circadian rhythms. Dr. Wehr’s research appeared in scientific journals and I wanted to learn more than what was revealed in the PubMed abstract. (link at bottom of post for those interested) I then discovered the work of Roger Ekirch, a professor of History at Virginia Tech. In his book At Day’s Close, which is, as it’s subtitle says is a history of nighttime, an entire chapter is devoted to the history of pre-industrial sleep patterns.

Cover of At Day'sClose by A Roger EkirchAfter sixteen years of research he published a paper which eventually led to his book. His research documented that for millenia that we didn’t always sleep in one eight-hour chunk. he pattern was more like that of Dr. Wehr’s subjects, in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning. References were found as far back as Homer in ancient Greece and Livy and Virgil in ancient Rome. He found references scattered throughout literature, court documents, journals, letters and other personal papers. He was surprised not only about the unexpected pattern but that the idea was so accepted as normal. “It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch said.

As we know, this practice eventually died out. Ekirch attribute the change to the advent of artificial lighting, first street lighting and eventually electric indoor light.  Craig Koslofsky, author of another book on the night, Evening’s Empire, offers a further theory in his book. With the advent of more street lighting, night stopped being the domain of criminals and became safe additional time for work or socializing. The idea of two sleeps became  considered a wasteful way to spend these hours. Whatever the causes, shortly after the turn of the 20th century the notion of two sleeps had vanished from common knowledge. 

Sleep deprivation is a serious problem today, noted by safety experts and insurance companies. Sleep deprivation is impacting educational efforts and health outcomes. The participants in Dr, Wehr’s study at first would sleep huge stretches of time, apparently making up for sleep debt that’s almost universal in the industrialized world. Once they had caught up on their sleep though, they began to have two sleeps. Still, once this began, they slept not more than eight hours total. Part of the sleep deprivation problem is related to the perception a solid block of sleep is needed. People wake in the night and then spend the hours worrying about why they woke and struggling to get back to sleep where their ancestors calmly and quietly found something to occupy the time.

Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford, shares this point of view and points out that even with standard sleep patterns, this night waking isn’t always cause for concern. “Many people wake up at night and panic,” he says. “I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.” But the majority of doctors still fail to acknowledge that a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be unnatural. “Over 30% of the medical problems that doctors are faced with stem directly or indirectly from sleep. But sleep has been ignored in medical training and there are very few centres where sleep is studied,” he says.

Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby - Girl Reading a Letter by Candlelight with a By Lokking Over her ShoulderI found all this fascinating. I often wake up in the middle of the night. The neighborhood can be noisy or the cats can go wild, but often there is no external stimulus. I like to read so years ago I got in the habit of having a book on the nightstand. Sometimes I even get up and do some small chore in the kitchen or tidy my desk. In thinking of Cadfael and the monks and all they managed to accomplish in their day I’ve decided to try an experiment. I am going to try and schedule my day in a similar fashion. It will have to be in gradual steps and I don’t have a church bell tolling to help me wake in the night. But someone else ran some similar experiments and I found useful advice in writer J. D. Moyers blog.

I’ll be starting by breaking some habits, firstly closing up the laptop earlier. I committed to reading 36 books this year on my Goodreads challenge. Last year I didn’t come close to a much lower goal so this will be an incentive. It will not be possible to go without electric light right away as Moyers and his family did but it’s on the list. You may think I have gone a little crazy but I encourage yu to read his blog post and let me know what you think of my experiment. We all want to sleep well and be more productive ans i look forward to the test.

Link to PubMed synopsis of Dr. Wehr’s paper. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10607034

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside of a scientific setting, this kind of sleep pattern is still attainable, but it does require changing our modern, electric lifestyle.

 

 

 

 

 

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Caturday Thoughts – Spring Commences lì chūn 立春 Feb 4th

Spring ground just turning greenAs a solar term, Spring Commences had already entered people’s lives in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). At that time, there were eight solar terms. According to some experts, the 24 solar terms were used for the first time in books during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), when the Start of Spring was set as the Spring Festival. In 1913, the first day of the first month of the lunar year was mandated as the Spring Festival.

People in China began holding a special ceremony on the first day of Spring Commences about 3,000 years ago. They made sacrifices to Gou Mang, the god of Spring, who is in charge of agriculture. By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), greeting spring had become an important folk activity. In Beijing, government officials welcomed spring in the wild field near the Dongzhimen, the east gate of Beijing. Since spring does not actually come anywhere in China at this time except the extreme south it is curious that this was the time of ceremony.

Plate of Hong Kong style spring rolls with dipping sauce

By Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine

In Chinese tradition it is believed when spring comes, just as the natural world is revitalizing, human bodies also start a new round of growth from this day. People should open the windows more frequently to allow the air to circulate and take more exercise to enhance their immunity. It is also the best time to protect one’s liver with liver tonics, since according to traditional Chinese medicine, spring is the time for raising the liver. Use of traditional Chinese medicine ingredients such as Chinese wolfberry, turmeric root, the root of red-rooted salvia, Corydalis tuber is common. It is recommended to eat foods like Chinese date, fermented soya beans, and spring onion. Garlic, caraway and peanut are also all good choices. To celebrate the actual day, in many parts  of China, people observe the custom of “biting the spring” on Spring Commences. They eat spring pancakes, spring rolls, or at the very least a few mouthfuls of carrots.

In China, it is said that the egg can be set upright on the first day of the Spring Commences, on Spring Equinox day and Autumn Equinox day. It is believed that if someone can make the egg stand on the first day of Spring Commences, he will have good luck in the future. According to astronomers and physicists, setting the egg upright has nothing to do with time, but with mechanics. The most important thing is to shift the egg’s center of gravity to the lowest part of the egg. In this way, the trick is holding the egg until the yolk sinks as much as possible. For this, people should choose an egg about 4 or 5 days old, whose yolk is inclined to sink down.

In Shaanxi province Spring Commences is the occasion of many colorful customs.  The local government hires some skilled artisans and gathers them to build the frame of an ox out of bamboo strips and the legs with wood. Then they paste over the frame with paper and paint it to complete the image. It is said that if more red and yellow paper is used, then there will be a good harvest that year; if black paper is pasted, then the year will be poor. Knowing this, who would paste black paper? When the paper ox is ready, there is a ritual to paint the eyes. In the old days the people would set up an altar for it and worship it. Wearing fabric swallows is a custom in some regions in Shaanxi. Every Start of Spring, people like to wear a swallow made of colorful silk on their chests. The custom originated during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The swallow is a harbinger of spring and a symbol of prosperity and happiness.

Close up of plum blossomsThere are also customs not exclusive to Shaanxi. Posting calligraphy and paintings on one’s door in the spring first appeared during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). People would do so to welcome spring and pray for good luck on the first day of Start of Spring. Plums blossom from the 12th lunar month to the second month of the next year. The plum blossom, as it fights against the cold, is most highly regarded. In China, the plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum are praised as the four gentlemen of Chinese flowers. Spring is the best season for kite-flying. A traditional folk activity, it has a history of more than 2,000 years. It can help build one’s health and prevent diseases. It also has the effect of promoting blood circulation and speeding up metabolism. A breath of fresh air outside is good makes you feel revitalized and kite flying is fun. But whether kites are flown in China or anywhere depends more on the actual weather than than the day of the solar term.

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Xiao Nian – The Kitchen God and His Wife

Zao_Jun_-_The_Kitchen_God_-_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15250In order to establish a fresh beginning in the New Year, families must be organized both within their family unit, in their home, and around their yard. Between the La Ba Festival, on the eighth day of the last lunar month, and Little New Year, on the twenty-third day, Chinese families undertake a thorough house cleaning, sweeping out the old in preparation for the New Year. This is a necessary step in the approach to the Kitchen god festival.

This is the time for the Kitchen God and his wife to depart for the celestial realm of the Jade Emperor of heaven. The Kitchen god will tell the Jade Emperor if the family is behaving honorably or not and whether the deserve increased blessings and prosperity. You want to show the Kitchen god your diligence and prepare him a good sendoff so he will give a good report.  Known as Zao Jun, Zao Shen, or Zhang Lang, the Kitchen God is the most important of a plethora of Chinese domestic gods that protect the hearth and family. The Kitchen God is celebrated in Vietnamese culture as well. The Jade Emperor, emperor of the heavens, either rewards or punishes a family based on Zao Jun’s yearly report. This happens on the 23rd or 24th day of the last lunar month of the year.

Offerings of food and incense are made to Zao Jun on his birthday (the third day of the eighth lunar month) and also on the twenty third day (or twenty fourth day) of the twelfth lunar month, which marks his return to Heaven to give his New Year’s report to the Jade Emperor. Tangguo is a sort of candy made from glutinous millet and wheat germ. It is very sticky. When the Kitchen God eats the candy, he will have his mouth stuck down so that the god cannot report the bad deeds to Jade Emperor.    On this day, the lips of Zao Jun’s paper effigy are often smeared with honey to sweeten his words to Yu Huang (Jade Emperor), or to keep his lips stuck together. After this, the effigy will be burnt and replaced by a new one on New Year’s Day. Firecrackers are often lit as well, to speed him on his way to heaven. If the household has a statue or a nameplate of Zao Jun it will be taken down and cleaned on this day for the new year.

Defining the date of the Kitchen god festival, also known as “Little New Year” has varied.  It is believed that people in northern China celebrate it on the twenty-third day of the twelfth lunar month, while the people in southern China celebrate it on the twenty-fourth. Along with location, traditionally the date may also be determined by one’s profession. For example, in ancient times, feudal officials made their offerings to the Kitchen god on the twenty-third, the common people on the twenty-fourth, and coastal fishing people on the twenty-fifth.

Even modern Chinese who may not really believe in the Kitchen god still follow this cleaning custom. In many ways it’s a good idea after the house has been shut up and everyone has been inside all winter. Being organized and on top of things is good for any household, Chinese or not. Fortune often smiles more on the prepared than the unprepared and everyone wants good luck. So I always follow this custom. It can’t hurt and it may very well be a help.

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