Then and now
"Ban tien"m (half a day) in China and you'll already be aware that the two things most often on your interpreter's lips are "the four modernizations," which means modernizing everything, and "scientific research." So, this week, with the Chinese Lunar New Year falling on February 16, I naturally said to C.V. , "What about a little scientific research into what came before this modernization of the New Year?" and my husband chuckled, "Well, I'll investigate among the in-laws."Skip to next paragraph
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The first universal factor his research revealed was a mammoth spring-cleaning beforehand. The old Empress Dowager would consult her little book and decide on an auspicious day. Then all the Buddhas, the brocades and everything else in the Palace would undergo a mighty cleaning, except her jewelry, which, she said, didn't need cleaning because only she wore it! We don't consult the astrologers these days but we springclean our universities and schools on the last day of term, then we take advantage of one or two auspicious days' holiday before New Year's Eve to clean our homes. This was important in the olden days because custom wouldn't allow you to sweep the floor during the New Year days; that would mean sweeping the wealth out of the house. The ignorant daughter-in-law who swept towards the door instead of inwards was lucky if she got nothing worse than a beating from her mother-in-law. Nowadays, everyone is expected to clean the house, to wash all quilts and bed linen, to have baths and to put on clean clothes. The most delightful sight on New Year's morning is all the children peacocking around in their beautiful new clothes and shoes. It's a matter of pride for parents to provide each child with a complete new outfit, so you can see why the poor child of the past hated the New Year.
After the cleaning came the cooking. On the 23rd day of the last moon, the Kitchen God had to go up to the King of Heaven to report on what the people in the house had been doing in the past year; then he'd return on the last day of the old year. Some people used to offer him glass dishes of candy or smear his mouth with treacle or sugar before his picture was taken down and burnt to go up to heaven . . . in order to sweeten his report! Nowadays I don't think it's even possible to buy a picture of the Kitchen God.
Each part of China had and has its own typical New Year food. In North China the sound you hear most before New Year is chop, chop. Meat and vegetables have to be chopped to fill little semicircular patties called "jaoz"m and to fill small rolls of thin paste called "spring rolls". The "jaoz"m are boiled and the spring rolls are fried in deep oil. In the Lower Yangtze plains where we live, hard rice cakes chopped in slices and boiled in meat and vegetable stew are real New Year food, too. There are lots of other things to prepare for the New Year parties and symbolical dishes to be offered to friends: apples (peace), olives (long life), lotus seeds (blessing) and golden oranges (wealth). However, I very much doubt that anyone ever thinks of these meanings now.