Some people might call Niuji Village backward. Located in the northern part of Anhui province, Niuji Village could as well be a village from the time the dynasties still existed in China.
Even though I complain about the cold in the winters a lot, and even though once in a while I feel myself annoyed by the rudeness or bad manners of some of the neighbors, I am nevertheless fascinated how many households here try to keep old traditions alive. From traditional Chinese weddings to old birthday customs, Niuji village is a place where numerous folk customs still remain alive today.
Offering Sacrifices to the Kitchen God 灶神 and Greeting him when he comes back 祭灶
One of my earlier posts described the custom of offering sacrifices to the Kitchen God on 23rd of the 12th month of the Chinese lunar year.
It is said that the Kitchen God, also called Zao Wangye 灶王爷 would go to heaven on the 23rd to report back to the Jade Emperor on how the family has behaved the past year.
On the day of the 23rd my mother-in-law would put up a picture of the Kitchen God in her kitchen, place sugar cakes and deep-fried pancakes in front of the picture as an offering. The superstition has it that after tasting these sugar cakes the Kitchen God will just speak good (sweet) words about the family to the Jade Emperor.
In the evening his image would be burned, so he can ascend to Heaven on the smoke of the fire. In addition my mother-in-law would burn incense in the courtyard to honor the Kitchen God and wish him a safe journey.
After sending the Kitchen God off on the 23rd of the 12th month of the Chinese lunar year, my mother-in-law would welcome him back on the 4th day of the Spring Festival. She would burn more incense and paper representing money. Firecrackers are also set off, but they are set off every day during Spring Festival in Niuji village, so you wouldn’t distinguish if it was to welcome the Kitchen God or just the usual “today is Spring Festival, we love firecrackers” custom. But the house altar would be cleaned and new offerings like fruits would be made.
Actually, even though many households in Niuji village burn incense on the 23rd and the 4th day and light up firecrackers, just few people still know why they do it. My mother-in-law is one of the few people who not just keeps the custom alive, but also remembers the story behind the custom.
Steaming Buns on the 29th of the 12th Month of Chinese Lunar year
The only day my mother-in-law bothers to steam her own buns, or Mantou 馒头 in Chinese, is on the 29th day of the 12th month of the Chinese lunar year. I have read that it was considered unlucky to steam buns from the 1st to the 5th of the first month of the Chinese lunar year, so traditionally people steamed buns, and prepared or dishes on the week of the 29th.
Last year my mother-in-law made beautiful buns decorated with red dots which we ate later on the New Year’s Eve. Many of our female neighbors would come together that day and create amazing formed buns and decorate them. However, many households just go out and by those steamed buns. Next door we actually have two steamed buns producers.
I think this is a lovely custom and I really hope it won’t disappear. I am looking to learn how to make those creative steamed buns this year with my mother-in-law. She will is thrilled that I am willing to learn about this tradition and want to keep it alive.
Opening-Door Firecrackers on Chinese New Year Morning
He is our family Firecracker King, sometimes driving me to my limits with his daily installations of red bursting noisy firecrackers. Really, he is known in the village as 鞭炮王, literally King of Firecrackers. It is not as if the rest of the neighbors don’t like to set off firecrackers, they do, but Mr. Firecracker King here, is simply the King of it.
So, traditionally each household strives to be the first to set off the opening-door firecrackers at 12 am on the 1st day of the Chinese New Year. In Niuji village this tradition is more than alive. It has strived. And now people wake up as early as 5 am to set off the first firecrackers. Of course, with Mr. Firecracker King being the one setting of a string of firecrackers followed by three big firecrackers at 4:30 am. In front of our bedroom window, because who needs sleep, right?
The symbolism is easy. Get rid of the old, bring in the new year and the louder the firecrackers the luckier the coming year. Niuji village must be a very very lucky village. We have explosives going off straight through the whole Spring Festival period as I wrote here in the post about how Niuji village welcomed the New Year.
In urban areas, even in Bozhou cities setting off firecrackers is banned. So naturally this custom has disappeared in most places.
Offering Sacrifices to the God of Wealth
This is one of my favorite customs. Who doesn’t long for a bit of fortune in the New Year, and what would be better than making offerings to the God of Wealth to achieve this?
A sacrifice is offered to the God of Wealth, or Caishen 财神, on the 2nd day of the first month of the Chinese lunar year. Usually, offers like pigs, chicken or fish were made, but nowadays if this custom is still alive, people just burn incense, and place some fruits on the altar next to the image of the God of Wealth.
Images of the God of Wealth are usually placed behind a door. This makes sure that he can welcome the fortune into the house.
I made a Caishen cross-stitch which is still waiting for place in our new home. Unfortunately, there is no place next to the entry door, so my husband is refusing to place him somewhere else in the apartment. Caishen has his destined spot and no bagging will allow me to place him in another corner. So I don’t know what’s worth, not having him in our apartment or having him hanging at the wrong spot?
No Going Outside on the 3rd Day of the Spring Festival
The funny thing about this custom is that many people follow it here in Niuji village, but few know the name of it or the story behind this day.
After a short search on Baidu, the Chinese version of Google, I found out that this day is actually called 赤狗日 chi gou ri or 小年朝 xiaonian chao. I am not even going to attempt to translate these terms. Just so much, 赤 chi means red or scarlet, and 狗日 gou ri literally means ‘dog day’ (and something else which I am not willing to translate here). Here is a great explanation in Chinese about all the different names of this day. If anyone is interested I will write up a more detailed description about the history and meaning behind this day.
In short this day is said to bring bad luck. It’s the day of the God of Anger熛怒之神 biaonu zhi shen or 赤熛怒 chi biaonu and whoever met him that day would have bad luck for the rest of the year. As a result many people don’t leave the house that day, and take a rest from all the New Year’s visits and also don’t receive any guests.
This custom has nearly disappeared today. And even in Niuji village some people have forgotten about this day. However, my mother-in-law is a very superstitious person, so on the 3rd day of the New Year we all are allowed to sleep in late (if that is even possible with the constant firecracker noise) and stay at home.
I think, people in Niuji welcome this custom, not just because they are so proud of their traditions, but after two days of celebrating, eating, drinking high percentage wine and gambling, many people just love to get a break. It’s a great excuse for people who need rest (or sleep off their alcohol).
There are numerous more folk customs, some of which are still alive in Niuji village, and some of which have disappeared fully. Many customs have disappeared due to the improving living standards, and many only live on in the memory of the older generations. My mother-in-law does try to keep many traditions alive. Sometimes people burn incense, or sets off firecrackers on those specific days, but have forgotten the meaning behind it. Especially the younger generation, even though taking part in the custom, have no idea why they are burning incense that day, or why they are offering sweet candy to that image in the kitchen. Yes, even my husband has no idea anymore. When I wrote this post, he was absolute no help. I actually had to explain to him why his mother was doing what she was doing during the New Year’s season.
But no matter what, I am glad some traditions are kept alive. For me that is what Chinese culture is all about: Full of mythical beings, stories about the Heaven and the Jade Emperor, Gods of Anger and Wealth.
No matter how superstitious some of those customs might appear. I think traditions and customs should be kept alive, because these very traditions, whether believed or not, provide continuity with the past and provide the family (the nation) with an identity.
What do you think? Are you an advocate of old traditions or do you think those superstitious believes should not exist in the 21st century?
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