During the winter solstice our small village of Xizhou retained its quiet and peaceful atmosphere. In the afternoon residents all moseyed out of their alleyways in order to bask in the warm sunlight. The birds that left for the winter have already flown back, if you were to follow the shadow of swallows into our backyard you would find a row of neatly laid cured meat hanging gingerly on the wall next to the pond.
The Linden Centre – Yang Pin Xiang House
(A big thanks to our guest Jenny for providing the picture)
The radiance of the winter sun, the gusts of mountain wind sweeping through rice paddies, the amber cured meat laid out on long sticks swaying in the cool air. This is the warm scenery that comes every year to remind us that Chinese New Year is almost here.
In the past 2 days the Linden Centre aunties have been rushing around after work preparing sausages. It is estimated that in this short period of time they have already completed over 50 kilograms of sausage!
“Sausage is easy to make! We use nutritious meat from the shoulder of pigs, which isn’t too fatty or lean, but the perfect composition of both. We cut the meat into small strips, and then marinate it for a night with salt, cardamom powder, fennel powder and peppercorn powder.
The people here don’t really like to eat sweet things, so we usually prepare salty or spicy and numb flavors. When you want to eat it we cut the sausage into pieces and fry it in a pan with oil, then it’s good to go!”
One of the local aunties, Mrs. Zhang, has been making sausages in this way for years.
Cured meat and sausage are classics of the New Year, most families start smoking the meat and preparing sausage up to a month in advance. During the holiday people in southern China like to make rice cake, whereas people in the north tend to make dumplings instead. Traditions such as shopping, pasting red signs, staying up until midnight, eating together, and lighting firecrackers are all still carried out by most who celebrate. These actions coupled with the traditions most anticipated by children, wearing new clothes and receiving red envelopes filled with money, are what we envision when we think of Chinese New Year.
Picture of Chinese New Year in Xizhou
Nowadays it seems that people are less excited by the preparations for the New Year, they no longer excitedly await the taste of savory fish and meat on New Year’s Eve. Former children have grown into adults, no longer able to experience the fun of wearing new clothes and setting off firecrackers. Many people now say, “The flavor of new year has weakened.”
But not in Xizhou. Here streets are not cold and dry, but remain lively and warm with the New Year spirit.
The town center in Xizhou on January 30th
On New Year’s Eve the local market is bustling with activity, all households venture out to buy groceries and even old grandparents who haven’t left home through the year journey out to chat. Friends, relatives, and vendors all happily exchange greetings, finally bringing home a long piece of sugarcane to make a “Ding Men Gun” (a poster hung on doorways during Chinese New Year that speaks of good fortune and luck for the family inside.)
In the past two years tourism has been steadily developing in Xizhou’s old town, in particular exceeding the expectations of guests during Chinese New Year. Starting on the first day of the lunar year the streets are filled with a sea of people, with the number of local residents even surpassing that of tourists.
A street in Xizhou during Chinese New Year
Through every turn you can see elderly local women wearing traditional white headdresses and red garb, carrying woven baskets on their backs parading through the streets. You’ll find more street stalls than usual, selling pea flour noodles, cold papaya noodles, candied hawthorn, spicy and numb flavored skewers, lottery tickets, and playing Mahjong.
Chinese New Year in Xizhou
This year it seems as if the New Year season has come even earlier than usual. “Only one month left until the New Year!” you can hear the Linden Centre aunties excitedly shout while preparing sausage together. Although it is clear that the festive New Year air is not as thick as it was in the days of our youth, that same air still wisps through Xizhou through a means of traditional customs and rich memories.
Now during the last month of 2019 we’ve turned to our local employees and friends to ask how they plan to ring in the New Year and what memories the holiday sparks in them. Most of them are local to Xizhou and are Bai ethnic minority people, with others hailing from other nearby villages and ethnic minority groups.
The Chinese New Year Memories of
Guilan Zhang is 50 years old and was born and raised in Xizhou’s Xianglong village before moving to the Linden Centre’s Chengbei village when she got married. Mrs. Zhang is a part of our housekeeping department in which she works tirelessly every day cutting fruit, cleaning rooms, and overall helping with guest affairs. She is extremely cheerful with a melodious voice and loves to share stories of old Xizhou with all young people in the Linden Centre.
Mrs. Zhang has already spent 28 New Years in Chengbei Village, in which every year she has upheld the tradition of going back home to Xianglong Village to see her family on the second day of the lunar year. During that visit she prepares a woven basket filled with different foods for the New Year, including a marinated pig head.
Marinated pig head
Marinated pig head is an essential dish for New Year’s Eve dinner in Xizhou. According to Mrs. Zhang a pig’s head marinated with salt, peppercorn powder, and fennel powder is even more delicious than ham! Unfortunately due to two reasons it is quite hard to make this dish. The first reason is that the head is a fatty part of a pig with a complicated structure, therefore it is hard for the flavor to seep into the meat. The second reason is due to flies. When marinating the pig head many people do not properly seal it, allowing flies to enter into the wrapping and be discovered while eating.
“Flies are very clever, they penetrate into the pig’s skull so you can’t see them, and even if you could see them you would have no way to take them out, so the pig head becomes gross.”
Mrs. Zhang excitedly said, “But I still make it! I am just very careful so no flies sneak in!”
On New Year’s Eve families all pull out and cut up their marinated pig heads, dipping it in a homemade sauce and eating it right away. As Mrs. Zhang gestured to the ears, tongue, mouth, and cheek of the pig she exclaimed “These are all the tastiest parts…..”
Xuezhen Yan is 57 years old and was born and raised in Chengbei Village. She is undeniably the most knowledgeable person at the Linden Centre when it comes to botany, caring for all plants in all Linden Centre sites. Beginning at 8 o’clock every morning Mrs. Yan rides her bicycle to the Linden Centre, the Linden Commons, and Yangzhuoran to water and care for all greenery within. In this Mrs. Yan not only showcases her physical strength, but also her mastery at pruning.
In addition to handicraft skills, Mrs. Yan is also an avid lover of dancing. Up until a few years back she annually participated in Xizhou’s New Year’s Artistic Performance, which is closely related to the generationally passed down New Year’s dancing traditions in the village.
Local aunties dancing the “fan dance” during New Year celebrations
For as long as she can remember, Mrs. Yan has been participating in Xizhou’s New Year’s artistic programs. On the first day of the lunar calendar, after everyone’s bellies are full from lunch they all swarm the town center to watch the dragon dance and traditional dances, something Mrs. Yan also did as a child. During that time no speakers were used for background music, instead women dressed in traditional Bai ethnic minority garb danced and sang at the same time. Back then, 7 year old Xuezhen Yan was just another onlooker in the crowd.
Nowadays this traditional artistic performance is still planned and carried out by local people. In the past few years community dancing has been getting more and more popular, with the performance stage running from the town center all the way to the entrance of the village.
New Year’s performance stage at the Shihuang Temple,
near the entrance of the village.
This year the stage is bigger, speakers have been installed, and the variety of performances has increased. A few years ago, Mrs. Yan joined the community dancing team and the “beginning of spring” performance. She also partakes in the fan dance, in which 20-30 women dressed in the red traditional Bai clothing each grasp tightly onto a red or purple fan, dancing and waving around their fans on stage. Among the excited onlookers watching intently are previous classmates and neighbors of Mrs. Yan.
Local onlookers perched on steps
nearby the Shihuang Temple watching a New Year’s performance.
On time there was a foreign guest at the Linden Centre who adored the type of fans used in the traditional fan dance and wanted to bring one home. After searching all throughout town with no success, the guest was ready to sadly return home with no fan. It was at this moment that the enthusiastic and caring Mrs. Yan gifted her own beautiful performance fan to the guests.
“I’ve been getting old these past 2 years and haven’t been performing, so I just decided to give them the fan!” Mrs. Yan said.
Fangli Zhang lives in an old courtyard in Xizhou’s Chengbei Village. Her courtyard is elegant and simple, the opening of the yard adorned with an orange tree. Once orange season arrives, Mrs. Zhang swiftly picks the fruit from the tree to make delicious and refreshing candied oranges.
In addition to making candied fruit, Mrs. Zhang also loves to cook, which pairs perfectly with her job as a worker in our employee canteen. All by herself, she is able to make tens of different dishes for our employees to enjoy daily. Every year on New Year’s Eve Mrs. Zhang and her colleague make the complicated “vegetarian noodles” for everyone to eat, through this bowl of noodles wishing everyone a happy new year.
Xizhou Vegetarian Noodles
(Picture sourced from the internet)
How does one make these special noodles? First, in separate bowls simultaneously boil noodles and prepare soybean milk. Then boil rice and taro in the soybean milk, and finally add in small chunks of white tofu. In the end a rich bowl of soybean soup is ready!
Once ready to dig in, gently place a handful of noodles into a bowl, then cover it will a heavy spoonful of soybean soup, finally adding in bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, chives, taro flowers, and colorful fried bean flour — Jian ga la.
This is how a hearty bowl of vegetarian noodles is completed, full of the naturally sweet flavor of vegetables and rich fragrance of soybeans.
After eating vegetarian noodles, everyone prepares marinated pig head, chicken, Chinese yam, lotus root, and other traditional foods to sacrifice to their local religion. Once in their temples, residents cut the prepared food and place it on yellow paper in front of deities, wishing for a peaceful and prosperous new year.
Food prepared for deities and left
in front of a temple in Xizhou during the New Year
After paying their respects, locals take the leftover food home and begin to prepare New Year’s Eve dinner: preparing fish, eating lotus root, cutting pig head…….
Mrs. Zhang says that she cherishes all of her childhood New Year’s memories, including eating, drinking, walking the streets, and receiving lunar new year money. But what she most looked forward to as a child was wearing new clothes and shoes to ring in the holiday.
During that time the living conditions of most were quite poor, therefore new clothes and shoes all had to rely on DIY means. For Mrs. Zhang and all of Xizhou, new shoes made by mom are one of the many warm memories of Chinese New Year.
When Mrs. Zhang was a child, you could spot her mother sitting comfortably in her courtyard working hard on a new pair of shoes as the New Year approached. On New Year’s Eve Mrs. Zhang’s mom would place a new outfit and pair of hand-made shoes on the foot of her bed. Then when Mrs. Zhang awoke on the first day of the New Year, she would excitedly wear her new clothing for all to see.
“At that time we had no means to go out and buy new clothes and shoes, we all went out to the market and bought pieces of corduroy cloth to bring home. We first used the cloth to make new clothes, and then used the leftover material to make shoes.” says Mrs. Zhang. Most people would choose purple and red cloth to make their clothes and sew on designs of small flowers. In addition, soles of shoes were primarily made from reused tire rubber. Stores that sold shoe soles used a machine to transform the rubber from tires into the shape of soles, accustoming different sizes based on the needs of children.
This is not distinctive to just Mrs. Zhang, during that time most children in Xizhou’s new clothes and shoes came to be in this way. Nowadays everyone goes either to malls or uses online shopping platforms to buy New Year’s attire, with only a small percentage of locals still selling handmade clothes at the market.
A Ling is 39 years old and has been working in the bar at the Linden Centre for 7 years now. She is energetic and passionate about learning, constantly seeking out our front desk staff and American colleagues to practice her English with. Mrs. A ling’s English ability is getting better and better each day, with her now able to easily explain local dishes and drinks to foreign guests.
Every time she learns a new vocab word, A Ling happily repeats it over and over in a giddy childlike manner until it is permanently imprinted in her mind. In regards to Chinese New Year, Mrs. A Ling’s most cherished memories occurred during her childhood.
During New Year’s Eve and the first day of the New Year residents in Xizhou believe that children cannot leave the house, or else they will become bad kids. Therefore, once the second day of the New Year arrives, all the local children burst out of their houses to play with friends. The things they played with were quite simple, such as 1 RMB a piece firecrackers, but nonetheless enjoyable. When A Ling was a child she would run to the rice fields with 3-5 classmates to play with firecrackers. They would use a match to light one firecracker at a time, once lit listening to the crackling sound it produced, both loud and exciting.
During one New Year, A Ling went to a neighboring village to play with her cousin. At the time, the cousin was also very young, with two constant trails of snot running from his nose. As they began to play under a large tree at the village entrance, a few nearby kids didn’t notice them and threw lit firecrackers in their direction, with one sticking to the snot under A Ling’s cousin’s nose and igniting there.
At that moment A Ling was scared but also wanted to laugh. Luckily the firecracker didn’t do much damage to the boy, only tearing a bit of his skin. But from that incident on, A Ling’s cousin did not dare allow snot to run down his face again.
Nowadays, A Ling spends every New Year at the Linden Centre, sometimes still thinking back to the story of her cousin and when a firecracker stuck to his face. In addition, in somewhat of an evolution of life, A Ling’s children play with firecrackers in the rice fields every year, just as she did a child.
For children, Chinese New Year is full of excitement and innocence, whereas for adults it is a busy season of rushing about. But no matter how busy they may be, the people of Xizhou always hold the spirit of the New Year in their hearts.
As you can tell, the people of Xizhou really know how to celebrate Chinese New Year!