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Chinese food and festivals

by Wendy Peng, Arts & Entertaninment editor

   
The variety of Chinese foods is intimately formed up with the festivals of the Chinese year. Another way to understand a nation’s culture is by observation of its festivals. The knowledge of festivals inevitably brings people insight into a nation’s history and how its people deal with life in the different seasons of the year.
   

Traditional Chinese festivals continue to be celebrated today just as they have been for hundreds of years. As in other cultures, most of the festivals originated from a past agricultural pattern when farming and life were dictated by the changes of the seasons and the cycle of cultivation and harvest. Associated with religion, the dates of most festivals are determined by the lunar calendar, which farmers used to decide when to plant crops.

   

All Chinese festivals are celebrated to express people’s desire for happiness and well-being, warding off misfortune, and family unity. Associated with those common elements, the three main traditional Chinese festivals of a year are the New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

   

The Chinese New Year comes in winter when farmers are unable to work in the field. It is a time for resting and relaxing. In the old time, families gathered together to keep the night of New Year’s Eve. It is a time of gratitude and family reunion today. People spend New Year’s Eve by bidding farewell to the old year, and thanking one’s ancestors and the gods for their blessing and protection in the past and asking for it again in the future.

 

The custom of families together for a New Year’s Eve dinner is called “s"surrounding the hearth,” which symbolizes unity. Several dishes are traditional. Long year vegetable (mustard green) represents long life; whole chicken symbolizes wealth for the family; clam, which is called han in Chinese, derives the meaning of becoming well-off and symbolizes prosperity.

 

In addition, fish balls, shrimp balls, and meat balls are eaten on New Year’s Eve because they symbolize the three top scores during the civil service examination in ancient China. Among all the dishes, Chinese dumplings are the most significant food in the New Year. Dumplings, in the old saying, symbolize gold ingots, so people believe that eating dumplings during the New Year time can bring wealth to one’s life.

Enriched by the legend of the patriot Chu Yuan, the Dragon Boat Festival occurs at the beginning of summer when insects thrive. Events and customs of the Dragon Boat Festival are aimed at driving off evil spirits and warding off diseases. Adults drink hsiung huang wine and children are give fragrant sachets, both of which are thought to be of ancestral origin and regarded as having qualities to prevent evil and bring peace.

The most popular dish during the Dragon Boat Festival is tzung tzu, originally eaten in memory of the patriot Chu Yuan. It is said that after Chu Yuan ended his life by drowning, people began throwing balls of sweet rice wrapped in bamboo leaves into the river to keep the fish from eating Chu Yuan’s body. Over time, tzung tzu gradually become more elaborate and its fillings more varied; people nowadays eat it as a snack during normal occasions as well.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most culturally significant festivals for the Chinese people, and the most romantic. Falling on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (September or October), the festival centers on the moon, which is believed to be at its roundest and brightest. The festival is said to have originated from the ancient ceremony of Sacrificing the Moon Goddness. In addition, the eighth lunar month is a harvest season, so people take this opportunity to express their gratitude to heaven (the moon) and earth for blessing them.

Evolving from the legend of the Moon Godess, the Chinese people pray to the Moon Godess for protection, family unity, and good fortune. Therefore, people eat moon cakes” on this day to represent family unity and closeness. Pomelos are also eaten on this day. In Chinese, pomelos are called yu, which is homophonous with the word for protection.

These festivals are still being celebrated by the Chinese people today due to their universal cultural significance. Traditional festivals are one of the strongest bonds reinforcing the cultural identity of the Chinese people besides the ethnic, geographic, historic, and linguistic ties that unite the Chinese.

Sources: Cultural Heritage and Tourist Book Series, published by Tourism Bureau Ministry of Transportation and Communication, Republic of China. Website of the Government Information Office of Republic of China: http//www.gio.org.tw K.C. Chang (1977). Food in Chinese Culture

 

 

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