looks like we’re still here (dongzhi festival)

Well, we braced ourselves for the Mayan apocolypse, and it seems things are still intact.

From http://bit.ly/X4UEV2

From http://bit.ly/X4UEV2 — such drama!

What better time for another cultural lesson?

Apparently, the Chinese Winter Solstice Festival, also known as the Dongzhi Festival (the “extreme of winter”), happens today. In certain parts of China, such as Guangdong and Canton, the Winter Solstice Festival rivals — and sometimes even surpasses — the celebration of the lunar New Year (the one coming up in February) in importance! Thanks to my friend Robert, for cluing me in, when my own parents are too busy planning for Western holidays in Chicago to give me a heads up. 🙂 (Robert is married to a Chinese woman.) Evidently, some people treat the Winter Solstice as the dawning of a new year instead of waiting around for Chinese New Year. A little confusing for a “hybrid” like me, but anyway . . .

The Winter Solstice, to recap for those of us rusty on our astronomy, is the day when one hemisphere of the Earth (north or south) is farthest away from the sun, resulting in the longest period of nighttime. It usually marks the first official day of winter (at least, here), roughly around the 21st each December. This year, it’s today! The upside of the solstice — and yes, we have summer solstices, too (incidentally flipped on the hemisphere opposite ours) — is that it’s precisely when these long winter nights have peaked, and days start getting longer as we transition back into the warmer months.

In ancient Chinese “yin-yang” philosophy, the Winter Solstice symbolizes the restoration of balance within the cosmos. It’s the time when positive yang energy re-enters, and, consequently, the return of warmth?

yin yang

Photo courtesy of http://bit.ly/RYWDJ6

Just like our traditional Western holidays, the Dongzhi Festival is a time of family reunion and eating. (Interestingly, people of the same last names are also expected to gather at this time. Must be fun for all those Chens out there.) The food associated with the Winter Solstice Festival is, true to Chinese mentalities of, um, just never quite living up to expectation (what? I said nothing), meant to remind us that we are now a year older and should strive for improvement during the new year.

What exactly are these shame-inducing goods?

Photo credit to the Taiwan Culture Portal

Photo credit to the Taiwan Culture Portal

They eat tangyuan, which are essentially little dumpling balls, made of glutinous flour and stuffed with sesame paste, peanut powder, or even plain. They’re then cooked and served in a sweet soup or broth. According to the Taiwan Culture Portal:

This festive food is eaten for several symbolic reasons. The word “tang” means “soup” and the word “yuan” means “round” or “ball,” and when the two words are combined, the phrase is similar in sound with the term for “reuniting” (tuan yuan) in Mandarin Chinese.

And what’s a celebration without a little mythology and sacrifice? I hear the Taiwanese also select a few tangyuan, in the shape of sacrificial animals (chicken, sheep, duck, etc.) to stick to the back of chairs, windows, and doors — this is an offering to ancestors, as well as a type of talisman to protect against evil that might come to harm the kids.

In Taiwan, also, it is a time to enjoy what’s known as “tonic foods,” which are meant to help immunity and keep you strong during the frigid winter months. These include different types of hot pot (loosely described by yours truly as a Chinese version of fondue) — which, now that I mention it, I’m happy to say my parents are thinking about making hot pot available to you fine ladies and gents sometime soon (probably in the new year — the Western one, that is)!

None of this could have been written (by me, anyway) without the help of Wikipedia or the Taiwan Culture Portal — so please check them out if you would like to learn more about the specifics of the festival.

Hope to see you soon as the days start getting longer!

(holiday) mid-autumn festival

This Sunday is the Mid-Autumn Festival (a.k.a. Moon Festival) — which means it’s time for moon cake!

You also should know by now that Chinese festivals come equipped with legends to explain the customs surrounding the festival. So, the story behind the Moon Festival is rather tragic and romantic (much like Double Seven “Chinese Valentine’s Day”), which I learned all about via this Chinese tourism website.

The Moon Festival occurs on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, which this year falls on 30 September. It takes its name from the fact that it is always celebrated during the time of year that the moon is at its roundest and fullest. Families gather to eat together and share well wishes with each other and the members that are far away.

The Story

Rumor has it that waaay back in the day, the planet was insufferably hot due to Earth’s having 10(!!!) suns. Naturally, circumstances called for a hero — a man worthy of myth — and a guy named Hou Yi stepped up and shot down nine of the 10 suns — huzzah!

Of course, this attracted admirers from far and wide to learn from him and acquire those mad “skillz.”

Hou Yi then also met a lovely woman named Chang E who would become his wife. They lived very happily, and things were good until one day when Hou Yi decided to step out to meet a friend. . . .

It seems nothing good ever comes from stories that involve Wangmu, the queen of the heavens (remember what she did to her daughter?). So Hou Yi runs into the Goddess of Heaven, who’s all, “Check out this elixir I’ve got for you. This is what those fools over on Mount Olympus could’ve used instead of sending that Hercules guy after all those crazy tasks — drink it, and you’ll become immortal! And you’ll be sent up to my turf.”

So, you know that whenever there’s a hero, there’s always a Judas. A guy who had come from afar to learn shooting “skillz” from Hou Yi back in the day, Peng Meng, just so happened to see what his old mentor did next.

Because he loved his wife Chang E so much, he went home with the elixir and told her, “Honey, the Goddess of Heaven gave me this herself. It’ll send whoever drinks it up to heaven and make ’em immortal. I’ll let you hold on to it for safekeeping.”

Three fateful days later, Hou Yi went out for a hunt, and Peng Meng broke in to their house, where the wife was. “Yo Chang!” he barked. “You give me that elixir!”

Knowing she was no match for his strength, she was forced to drink the elixir herself to keep it away from the brute.

As soon as she downed it, she shot straight through the window and straight for the heavens — but her love for her hubby drew her to the closest heavenly body to Earth, the moon.

“CHANG E!!!!” Hou Yi cried to the sky, when he realized what had transpired.

To his amazement, he saw a figure that looked just like his wife appear from the moon.

He then took all the food he knew she liked and brought it to an altar to offer as a sacrifice to her. To offer him emotional consolation and support, neighbors lit incense and made food to commemorate his kind and lovely wife, year after year.

The Food

So, of course the most iconic culinary tribute to the Moon Festival is the moon cake. From the aforementioned travel site, they are described like this:

The moon cake is a kind of cookie with various fillings and on the surface are printed different artistic patterns depicting the story of Chang E flying to the moon. People treated this kind of food as one of the sacrificial offerings to the moon in the old days. Today, it has become an indispensable food while appreciating the bright moon for every family. Moon cakes come in various flavors which change according to the region but common fillings are nuts, sugar, sesame, ham and egg yolk. Travel China Guide

The moon cake is also round, naturally, which represents the reunion of a family, but nowadays, moon cake is also gifted between friends and family alike to wish each other a long and happy life. Some customs include paying respect to the moon itself or doing dragon dances.

Now, I asked my mother if we ever had moon cake here for the day of the festival, and she said no — but she’ll certainly change her mind if enough of you ask her for it!

(Incidentally, you can also make it yourself with this recipe I found.)

What do you think? Would you like to preorder some moon cake for Sunday? If so, drop me a comment here, on Facebook, or give us a call at 773/728.5778 and let us know.

Have a delicious day!

valentine’s day, eastern style

On Monday, my mom surprised me with a little tidbit from her past: Back when she was taking English classes, she wrote an essay on the difference between Chinese Valentine’s Day and Western Valentine’s Day. Immediately I requested to see it, which would make this job easier — no such luck, as the teacher had loved the manuscript enough to keep it to save as a sample for future classes. Besides, this class had to have been nearly thirty years ago.

I of course had no idea there was a “Chinese Valentine’s Day,” so I consulted my good pal Google and yielded convoluted results. Asking to confirm and clarify things with my parents proved useless, so I’m left here to explain with a superficial knowledge of this holiday. (Please don’t judge me. I’ll do better in the future.) If you’d like to read the exact article itself, please visit it on Wikipedia. The following is my paraphrased version/interpretation.

Of course, Chinese Valentine’s Day isn’t actually called Valentine’s Day; it’s called the Qixi Festival — it takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar (naturally!), and in English can be referred to as “the Night of Skills,” “Festival to Plead for Skills,” or especially in Cantonese, “the Seventh Sister’s Birthday.” Incidentally, this year, the Qixi Festival takes place on 23 August. (It pretty much always falls in August.) Anyway, the background of this festival involves a tragic tale of literally star-crossed lovers that explains a yearly occurrence of the celebration, which began in the Han Dynasty, when people worshipped the stars.

In the late summer, there are two stars that shine high, presumably in the Chinese sky at that time: Altair and Vega. These stars are linked to the legend of the cowherd and the weaver girl. . . .

Legend has it that there was a cowherd named Niulang. And there was a “seventh daughter” of the Goddess of Heaven; her name was Zhinü, and she was especially skilled at weaving. One day, Zhinü escaped from the heavens to Earth in search of fun. Girl met boy, and they fell in love. They got married in secret, and even managed to have two kids before big mama found out.

The Goddess of Heaven, upon discovering her divine daughter had left the heavens to be with a mere mortal, was enraged. She immediately ordered Zhinü back to the skies to weave more clouds.

Niulang, of course, was rather distressed at his wife’s disappearance. His ox suddenly spoke to him, telling him if he killed it and wore its hide, he’d then be able to go into the heavens to find his wife.

Niulang did as the ox said, and carried his children up with him up to the heavens to search for Zhinü.

The Goddess of Heaven, it seems, was more savvy about the happenings on her own turf, and upon discovering Niulang’s presence there, she became enraged. (Talk about toxic mothers-in-law!) She pulled out her hairpin and scratched the heavens apart, forming the Milky Way between the two stars that represent the two lovers, Altair and Vega.

This rift in the stars thus divides the lovers forever. Except for the one day a year, the seventh day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar, when the Goddess of Heaven, touched by their love, takes a little pity on the separated lovers, her daughter Zhinü weaving away by herself, and poor Niulang still rearing their children, and allows them to unite (must be one steamy rendezvouz!).

Tradition calls for offerings to the cursed couple, Zhinü and Niulang, consisting of blossoms, fruit, tea, and face powder. People place garlands in their yards, and the single or newly married women of the house make the offerings. In this practice, the women are “bound in beauty” with Zhinü.

There’s more. Girls can test their embroidery prowess by tossing a sewing needle into a bowl of water — whether the needle floats (good) or sinks (bad) directly reflects the girl in question’s skills. And the day is also time for prayer: Recent brides pray for a quick pregnancy, and single girls ask for a good husband.

Apparently Western V-Day has been “imported” on its traditional “solar calendar” date 14 February, and Chinese men gift their sweethearts flowers, candy, or both. In Taiwan, though, men give presents to their ladies on Valentine’s, and women reciprocate on what’s called “White Day” (a month later on 14 March).

On that note, hope you all enjoyed your respective Valentine’s Days, whether it was lunar or solar!

happy new year

What better a time to write a new post for this blog than on Chinese New Year. Incidentally, that is today — for the next ten minutes, as it seems I haven’t quite mastered the beast that is time management (a resolution that invariably crops up every “Western” New Year, har har). I cheated and bought myself time by posting this early and unfinished, so that the timestamp on the blog will forever remain the correct date (I am indeed a trickster). 😉

Admittedly, all I knew about Chinese New Year up until today can be summed up with a Post-It-sized list:

  • based on the lunar calendar and lasts several days
  • begins a year of a new animal in an astrological list that cycles like the Western zodiac, though only annually
  • usually involves red envelopes, i.e. gift of cash-ola from the ’rents, and if lucky, relatives (incidentally, my dad randomly handed me a brand new fifty today, but said nothing of the holiday)
  • how to say “Happy New Year” and wish people prosperity for the new year in Mandarin: gōng xǐ fā cái and xīn nián kuài lè (yoinked from About.com, thankfully, as I never would’ve been able to transcribe that properly into Roman alphabet nor would I have ever been savvy enough to record clips of myself saying it for all the world to hear)
  • never to wash your hair on Chinese New Year, as you don’t want to wash out all your luck for the new year (Moose, on the other hand, slipped and did so this morning — whoops!)
  • oh, and this year is the year of the dragon. Last year was that of the rabbit

So thanks to my mission to educate those of you interested in Chinese and Taiwanese culture, I’m doing the same for myself in order to do so. 😛 To all the teachers and profs of my school days, fret not, as I shall always cite my sources. Just not in MLA format.

I’ll get it out of the way now. The following information on Chinese New Year (henceforth referred to as CNY) will have all been extracted for the most part from this About.com article and this Wikipedia page.

I was prowling Facebook earlier today and noticed a couple of fellow Asians had posted statuses and comments referring to it as “lunar new year” as well. This was a first for me, as I’d never realized there was a PC version of the occasion much akin to our Western “happy holidays”!

Regardless, Chinese New Year is celebrated across a number of places that are not China (which if you asked my parents, they are not from. Taiwan is different from China!), such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong (where, incidentally, a couple of our waitresses are from). It’s also the most important and longest festivity in Chinese culture.

Not as well known, CNY is also known as “spring festival,” interestingly — but the reasons for this seem widely political and I won’t go into it here. If you’re curious, hop on to this article for the explanation.

Also, the New Year celebrations begin on a new moon, most typically the second one after the winter solstice, and last fifteen days. (As it turns out, my post isn’t so late, but it still felt wrong to post it on the second day . . . call me a Twinkie. ;))

Traditionally red is a huge CNY color, as old-school legend has it that a mythical beast named Nian (also the Mandarin word for “year”) would terrorize villagers by preying on their livestock, crops, and even their children — but apparently the beast was frightened by red clothing. That’s why you’ll see tons of red lanterns, dresses, and scrolls during the CNY festivities. Additionally, the color symbolizes prosperity.

The legend of Nian includes explanations for firecrackers and drums, which were meant to scare him off (apparently he was not a fan of loud noises). Also, a phrase that means celebrating the new year happens to be “guo nian,” which word for word means “passing of Nian,” commemorating the eventual conquest of the beast.

No description of CNY would be complete without a mention of superstitions, as I’ve grown up with countless warnings of what not to do for reasons beyond logical explanation (couldn’t get my ears pierced without my grandpa calculating the best date for it — which resulted in my being eleven before it ever happened . . . and to my eternal sense of injustice, my sister being only four!) and freakouts (being placed ever so flittingly in room 444 at the hospital — more on that in a moment). I’d say Chinese culture is among the most superstitious of any I’ve ever encountered, so here’s an overview of CNY-related traditions and faux-pas:

  • red envelopes must contain crisp new bills summing up to an even number. The number should never contain the number four, as the Mandarin word for four is a homophone for the word for death (hence the complete flip-out at the hospital; I was then immediately transferred to 808 :D)
  • house cleaning should take place in the days preceding CNY, and never on the first day or first few. When you clean the house, you sweep away bad luck accumulated from the previous year and make room for new good luck (which you’d in theory sweep away on the first day if you were to defy this!). Similarly, don’t wash your hair on the first day either.
  • wear and decorate with red. Buy new clothes! CNY is all about out with the old crap and in with the new and better (not just materially, I’d wager, but the Chinese are a very symbolic bunch).
  • don’t cook. Lighting fires and using knives are considered unlucky by some, so the feasts of the New Year are prepped ahead of time. (Incidentally, I’d learned somewhere that the use of chopsticks in Chinese culture is due to this belief that knives symbolize violence — which is why all meat in Chinese cuisine is pre-cut.)

All right, it’s getting late and this is starting to be a sleepy new year for me. Stay tuned in the following fifteen days for more tidbits on CNY. Next up, traditional CNY foods. Zzz. . . . I mean, mmm. 0:)