The Spring Festival is a unique Chinese festival that falls on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar. It is the grandest, the most exciting, and the oldest yearly event, dating back to the Western Han Dynasty over 2,000 years ago. However, the customs in the northern and southern parts of China are very different. For example, northerners love dumplings, while southerners prefer Tangyuan―glutinous rice dough that is rolled into balls with fillings inside. Northerners enjoy noodles, while southerners like rice cakes more. These are just some generalizations. In fact, customs vary from region to region in the south or the north due to geographic and climate features, as well as lack of communication caused by inconvenient transportation in ancient times. The customs may be different, but the implications are the same. All the traditions are meant to express their best wishes to their friends and relatives as well as great prospects for the coming year.
Beijing is a typical northern Chinese city. Its customs, especially its cuisine, are classic of northern China. The local people will have fried meatballs, mutton, and carp, to name but a few. Fried meatballs represent family reunion. Mutton symbolizes good luck, for the Chinese character 羊 for sheep has the sense of auspiciousness. Carp is also a must, originally intended to be an offering to gods. It has since been associated with wishes for good luck. It is served as an offering, or as a delicacy.
People in northern China also enjoy rice cakes during the Spring Festival to wish all the best for the next year and to strive for success financially or otherwise.
The festival derived its name from “New Year”; yet, its meaning has risen above the original sense. It now conveys prayers for a good harvest. Since the Ming and Qing dynasties a few centuries back, rice cakes have become a year-round snack, with varied flavors in the north and the south. During the Spring Festival, rice cakes with genuine Beijing flavor are served in large quantities by Muslim snack bars.
As a Beijing proverb goes, “Dumplings on the first day of the New Year, and noodles on the second.” Dumplings are shaped like gold ingots, which symbolize auspiciousness. To eat dumplings during the festival means saying goodbye to the old year and welcoming the new, while noodles symbolize a smooth life.
Northerners often go to temple fairs or temples to pray for lucky omens. “Walking on the bridge and touching the nail” at Zhengyang Gate is one of the ancient customs for Beijing residents. It was first described in Volume One of Marking Events by Solar Terms and Months compiled in the Qing Dynasty.
Women could justifiably go hiking on the 16th day of the first lunar month because it was believed that a long walk on this day would rid them of all diseases. Actually, it was kind of bodybuilding exercise. Infertile women would touch the nails on the city gate to pray for family prosperity, hoping to become pregnant the next year, since the character 钉 for nail sounds the same as 丁for child in Chinese. Measuring 43.65 meters, Zhengyang Gate is the highest gate tower in Beijing. Thus, touching nails on this gate is believed to be the most effective.
As a representative of southern cities, what customs does Tiantai, Zhejiang have that distinguish it from northern cities?
People in Tiantai eat cakes rolled in dumplings for dinner on New Year’s Eve. Cakes rolled in dumplings have batter as covering, and eggs, fish, potato shreds, fungus and so on as fillings. They are rolled into rolls, and then fried until the wrap turns golden.
One other ancient custom in Tiantai is to prepare and eat rice cakes at the turn of the lunar year. Eating rice cakes means pursuing a better self and expressing one’s best wishes for the next year. In addition, people also eat tangyuan, to convey expectations of family reunion and to ward off all evil spirits and disasters in the year to come.
Unlike northern Chinese, who celebrate the Lantern Festival on January the 15th on the lunar calendar, people in Tiantai traditionally celebrate it on the 14th, when the street is festooned with lanterns. However, in order to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, the locals now voluntarily, and wisely, choose not to have any large gatherings. Nevertheless, the quiet streets are telling stories of greater love and deferred gratification.
It is interesting that people will “pit” the northern customs against the southern ones, including those during the Spring Festival. These different customs reflect the variety in culture and resources, and the respect for and inheritance of cultural traditions as well. Behind the different traditions of celebrating the Spring Festival are the same expectation of family reunion and the same good wishes for the New Year. They highlight the cultural feature that attaches great importance to love of family life and happy reunions.
（南京航空航天大学外国语学院 指导老师/梁道华 李萍；产品经理/苏露 王雨柔 邓嘉瑞；导演/邵杰 龚钰婷；主持人/金涵嫣；摄影/孙婧溢 金涵嫣；剪辑/高一点 钱嘉乐；新媒体稿/余响）