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New Year Preparation in Xuzhou
    2007-02-21 14:33:05     CRIENGLISH.com

In east China¡¯s Xuzhou, the festive celebration to usher in the Spring Festival starts as early as Laba, the 8th day of the last month in the Chinese lunar calendar.

In addition to glowing paper cuts, the painting of mighty God of Doors and sumptuous family reunion dinner, Spring Festival in Xuzhou has more stories to tell. From a religious ceremony given to gods and ancestors, bidding farewell for the past year and welcoming the new one, Xuzhou wraps all its unique characteristics into the entire celebration practices of Spring Festival.

A scene of an old-style courtyard in Xuzhou of east China's Jiangsu province. [File Photo: china-ehotels.com]

As one of the important preparations for the biggest day, frantic shopping has brought the festive atmosphere in the city of Xuzhou far ahead of New Year¡¯s Day itself. So what¡¯s special about the shopping list for the Spring Festival? Wang Shengyun, an expert on local folk customs says typical local desserts are usually purchased at this time. The most popular desserts are ¡°Guo Zi¡± and ¡°Ma Ye Zi¡±. Guo Zi is made by frying slices of sweet potato with malt sugar, but the procedure of making Ma Ye Zi is much more complicated. Locals firstly cut half-cooked pancakes into diamond shapes, then dry them in the air, before finally frying them with salt or sugar. With their crisp feeling, appealing to people¡¯s palates, Guo Zi and Ma Ye Zi have long been the most popular desserts among local people. Other traditional foods, like Chinese steamed bread, fried balls of vegetable or meat, air-dried chicken or duck meat should all be included on the shopping list. Even with respect to humble steamed bread, Xuzhou has its unique custom. Locals like to keep the just-cooked steam bread until the 15th day of the lunar January to eat. About this special custom, Wang Shengyun explains,

¡°It¡¯s a custom handed down from ancient times. Our ancestors found that the cracked dry bread looks like a smiling face, believing it to be an auspicious sign for the new year.¡±

The celebrative shopping is followed by a series of other preparations. People begin decorating their rooms, creating an atmosphere of rejoicing and festivity. All the door panels will be pasted with Spring Festival couplets, highlighting Chinese calligraphy with black characters on red paper. The content of couplets varies according to each house owners' wishes - from a bright future to good luck for the New Year. Also, pictures of the god of safety and wealth will be posted on front doors, to ward off evil spirits and welcome peace and abundance.

On the lunar New Year¡¯s Eve, all family members will sit together to munch a much more luxurious reunion dinner. Dishes such as chicken, fish and bean curd are among the must-served, for, in Chinese,their pronunciations, respectively "ji", "yu" and "doufu," mean auspiciousness, abundance and richness. And of course, the most important part of the dinner should always be dumplings - ¡°Jiaozi¡± in Chinese. According to historical records, people had already started to eat Jiaozi on Chinese New Year's Day some 1,600 years ago. As the shape of Jiaozi resembles that of ancient gold and silver ingots, Jiaozi symbolizes hope for a year of plenty.

Xuzhou also possesses its unique custom in making Jiaozi. Wang Shengyun tells us more.

¡°We have a special custom for the Spring Festival Jiaozi. We like to put a total of nine coins in nine dumplings. You know, after nine comes ten. In Chinese, ¡°ten¡± is homophonic with ¡°honesty¡±, so the custom symbolizes the coming of ¡°honesty¡± and local people¡¯s appreciation for honesty and integrity. If you happen to come across one with a coin inside, it means you will have good luck in the New Year.¡±

Besides traditional activities like making Jiaozi, staying up to welcome the New Year, putting up spring couplets and burning fire-crackers, Xuzhou people have some other important festive practices to stick to, such as to place a special stick besides the threshold. The stick is called ¡°Lan Men Gen¡± which literally means a stick placed on the threshold.
About this special stick, Li Peimin, an expert on local folk custom, explains.

¡°Lan Men Gun is another unique custom in Xuzhou. It¡¯s believed that this special stick could ward off evil spirits and keep good fortune inside. The stick must be made of wood from peach, elm or willow trees, as these woods are believed to be auspicious in Chinese culture. This stick should be placed there on New Year¡¯s Eve and kept there until the 8th day of lunar January.¡±

With the protection of Lan Men Gen and all these elaborate preparations, the locals of Xuzhou can be blessed with a safe and prosperous New Year.

On the very day of the New Year¡¯s Day, family members will dress up and get hong bao, red envelops with money for good wishes, ready for their relatives and friends¡¯ arrival. The visiting begins on the first day of the New Year, and continues for several days. At this time, sincere blessings are ready for close people as well as strangers who may come across on street.

On streets and lanes, the lively atmosphere permeates everything, through a series of activities such as lion dancing, dragon dancing, folk Luo Zi dancing and so on. Li Peimin tells us that these activities will last for several days preceding the 15th day of the first month on the lunar calendar.

¡°In the rural areas of Xuzhou, every village has its performing art troupe. These troupes stage performances all across the countryside until the end of Spring Festival, namely the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar.¡±

The last big event during Spring Festival is the lantern festival, which falls on the 15th day of lunar January. Traditional food is also served in particular for this day. The locals of Xuzhou always have ¡°Gan Cai Jiao¡±, a traditional food made from air-dried vegetables, fresh kidney beans and peanut, together with fermented, salty soya beans. Locals believe that after days of gluttony, Gan Cai Jiao can help their digestion by clearing the grease in their bowels.

Wang Shengyun tells us that on that special day, aside from Gan Cai Jiao, locals will also enjoy Zheng Mian Deng, a steamed dough bun in the shape of an ancient lamp, and Zheng Mian Long, in the shape of dragon.

He introduced the procedures of making these two traditional foods.

¡°Zheng Mian Deng is made from fine flour. Firstly, we put flour in a big bowl, add water to it gradually. We mix and knead by hand to form a soft dough, shaping it into the form of an ancient lamp. We then insert a little stick, wrapped in cotton, in the center of it, dipping it into edible oil and then igniting. Adults always sway the light of Zheng Mian Deng in front of children¡¯s eyes believing this action will exempt them from all kinds of eye disease. Zheng Mian Long is made in almost the same way but finally shaped as dragon. The dragon¡¯s eyes are always decorated with Chinese prickly ash, its whiskers with red peppers. With an ignited Zheng Mian Deng on it, Zheng Mian Long is always put in the grain store. People believe it will bring abundance to the family.¡±

People in the urban areas of Xuzhou always display colorful lanterns on this day, while villagers enjoy other types of celebration. Wang Shengyun tells us that villagers enjoy an interesting activity called ¡°Shuai Shua Ba¡±, which literally means tossing bundles, on that day. The game is also a special way of sending greetings among villagers.

¡°The bundle is made of the ears of Kaoliang, a kind of sorghum particular to China. It can be made with or without a handle. The one with a handle presents a vision - the glowing dragon when swinging. The one without a handle presents the vision of a rainbow. People like these games, considering them a feast for the eyes.¡±

Spring Festival symbolizes union, prosperity, and the promising New Year in the hearts of every Chinese. Like the unique customs of Xuzhou, different types of folk customs constitute the wonderful culture of Chinese Spring Festival.

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