Spring Festival on the Loess Plateau
After New Year's Day, the Spring Festival, the most important of all Chinese traditional festivals, draws near. For the Chinese, the Spring Festival has become an integral part of their life. In the kids' eyes, the Spring Festival promises delicious snacks, new clothes and boisterous playing. The sojourners have to travel back to their hometown and participate in the rituals offering sacrifices to the ancestors. People get badly busy and deliciously tired to create the scene of bustle and excitement which is unique to the Spring Festival.
It is a pity that modern urban life has diluted the Spring Festival atmosphere, chipping away an essential part of a Chinese custom. In search of typical Spring Festival celebrations, you should go to the rural area in Shaanxi Province known as the Loess Plateau, the birthplace of the Chinese nation.
Once it enters the last month on the traditional Chinese calendar, local residents fling themselves into the complicated preparation for the coming Spring Festival. Wives are especially busy as almost everything, including food, clothes, and cleaning, fall on their shoulders. They have to drive the donkey to pull the stone roller with which wheat, soybean, millet are grounded to make flour cakes, tofu, noodles, fried cakes and glutinous cakes. All the food eaten during the month of the Spring Festival has to be prepared in advance. Going to the fair is a big thing for men. The last and greatest fair falls on the 23rd day of the last month. Most men take home produce to fair to sell, and with the money earned buy necessary commodities required for the Spring Festival.
Women also have to sew new clothes for all the family members, particularly the children. Every item has to be new, from outfit to underwear, from hat to shoes. Even the string used to tie a girl's hair is no exception. As the local belief goes, the kids should be blessed with one more thing: a jujubi tag. The jujubi tag is made up of a red string of jujubi nuts, grain straw, coin and a small firecracker.
The local folks who live in cave dwellings care a lot about sanitary conditions. Before the Spring Festival, the cave dwellings are thoroughly cleaned, and quilts and clothes washed. Moreover, in each corner of the cave, they place a hot coal in an iron ladle with vinegar poured onto the coal. Folks say it can keep off the evil, but it also has a scientific basis: It can kill the virus and clear the air.
On the day before the Spring Festival, each family is busy with stamping all kinds of decorations, like new window paper, paper-cutting decorations on panes, Spring Festival pictures, a picture of a door-guardian and antithetical couplet. Spirit and dishes are prepared, and steam bread, joss sticks and candles are offered to deities as well as to their ancestors. In the cracking of the firecrackers, the Spring Festival arrives. At midnight, each household makes a fire with cedar leaves in the backyard to welcome the blessings of the new lunar year.
After all this program, local folks finally settle down to eat dinner. They usually drink home-made millet wine. The one who proposes a toast must sing a traditional folk lyric, while the one who accepts the toast must finish the cup at the end of the lyric. People stay up late into the night, and the lights are kept on for the whole night to indicate peace and brightness in the coming year. In the pan are some food which means abundance, and outside the door stand knives or sticks to keep off the evil and the monsters. The local people call all these procedures "watch in the new year". The elder people have one more step to go. At the dawn of the Spring Festival, they quietly walk up to the top of a hill and looks in the distance eastward. It is said that by "savoring the sky", the elderly can foretell the next harvest and the luck of the village.
On Spring Festival Day, people rise very early. First they light firecrackers to imply a good start. Then they welcome the return of the Deity of the Kitchen who is believed to go to heaven to report duty on the 23rd of the last month and return on Spring Festival Day. After that, villagers begin paying Spring Festival calls to neighbors and relatives. Local people give it a unique name: Asking About Health. The kids should ask about the elders' health and the elderly would praise the kid's good behavior. On this day, cleaning is usually forbidden. In the case that it can not be avoided, one should always sweep from the doorway inside. Neither dust nor water should be thrown out of the door to prevent the loss of money and good luck.
The 10th day of the first lunar month is believed to be the day on which the mouse marries his daughter. In order not to disturb the mice's wedding, supper is finished before sunset and tattering of kitchen wares should not be heard after darkness. People climb to the roof of the cave dwellings, trying to catch to the sound of the mice wedding through the chimneys.
Village theatrical parade and yangge (a traditional Chinese dance) are two major activities during the Spring Festival.
As a grassroots activity, the village theatrical parade has a long history. The participants are volunteers without payments, since the local folks take it as an honor and a must. There are various forms of village theatrical parades such as lion dances, land boat playing, bamboo horse riding and stilt walking, and the settings are usually historical events and folk legends. There are also theatrical parades on carts or carried by men. These performances do not need singing or dancing, the players just making several still poses on the cart.
Before a theatrical parade, the folks first pay respect to the heaven, the earth, the deities and the ghosts, hoping for a peace and abundance in the new year. Then the teams go around each household in turn, bringing with them blessings. Two clowns will be the pioneers whose presence indicates the coming of the procession. So the family takes out fruit and cakes and light firecrackers to show welcome. Following the honor guards with flags and iron blunderbusses, the main figures in parade, disguised in the form of deities, fighters, Chinese-version Robin Hoods and monsters, either on horseback or carts, thread the village lane, accompanied by the noise of gongs and drums. When the parade arrives at the door of a family, the family put a red cotton strap on the weapon of the guard to express gratitude as well as to pray for the shelter of the deity. The deity figures also stride over the young's head to wipe off the bad luck.
In some places, theatrical parade contests are held to celebrate the Lantern Festival that falls on the 15th of the first lunar month. At then, the theatrical parades of different villages gather in town and compete for performance, and the downtown area is crowded with spectators coming from afar. The real purpose of the theatrical parade is to offer the painstaking farmers a rest after harvest and a wide mass foundation has secured its permanent popularity.
Yangge, a traditional Chinese folk dance, is also very popular. After paying respects to the deities, the yangge team sets out to tour through the village. At each door, the leader of the team improvises lyrics according to the scene to bless the owner. After the song, comes the play of yangge to the temple of gongs and drums, which ends in a players' chorus about peace. And the owner takes out brewed jujubi nuts, cigarettes and sweets to entertain the yangge team.
Yangge used to be a dance originated from agricultural labor. That maybe accounts for its popularity during the Spring Festival. In Shaanxi Province where the natural conditions are fairly hostile, it brings the farmers both happiness and hope.
from Beijing Review