Spring Festival customs bring nostalgia to mountain village

2020-01-16 Xinhua Editor:Cheng Zizhuo

Under an eave of a courtyard stood 69-year-old Fan Chenhai spinning the handle of a stone mill as light-yellow rice milk trickled down into a big wooden barrel beneath.

It was a usual day in the 12th month of the lunar calendar. Fan, a villager in Shuangxikou, a small mountain village in eastern China's Zhejiang Province, got up quite early.

He and his neighbors planned to make a typical local delicacy -- rice cake -- a normal preparation for the upcoming Spring Festival, or the Chinese New Year.

A special plant growing in the mountain was picked to offer a unique scent to the rice cake. He burned the plant with soybean stalks and poured the ashes into the water, boiling and filtering it before mixing it into the rice milk.

"Grinding requires skill," Fan said. "You must grind steadily in a fixed direction so that the rice milk will not flow backward."

Decades ago, rice cake was a special treat only had during the Lunar New Year, as the locals barely had the time or rice to make the delicacy. With increased income and more spare time, the once vanished custom for the festival has returned.

The government's rural revitalization efforts have improved the living standards of the villagers. Migrant farmers who used to work in cities have flowed back to find new opportunities and start businesses in their hometowns.

After grinding the rice, neighbors gathered in Fan's home to help out with the next step of the process.

According to the local custom, burning three sticks of incense before steaming rice cakes is a salute to the kitchen god, who is in charge of the stove of the human world in Chinese mythology. As the incense burned, Fan and his neighbors prayed for a promising new year.

"It's also called 'cake of a thousand layers'. While there will not be 1,000, dozens of layers will be baked," Fan said. A full spoon of rice milk is poured evenly onto the layer underneath after the latter is steamed solid enough. The operation is repeated again and again. "It takes time and patience."

The atmosphere of the Spring Festival became thicker as the steam filled Fan's kitchen and rose from the chimney.

While Fan steamed the rice cake, two other families in the village were also busy preparing something special.

Ding Baoxiang, 85, lives in an ancient house made with clay tiles and walls, carved wooden windows and a square courtyard. Every Lunar New Year, people gather at his house to make steamed buns.

His steamed buns are even famed in surrounding villages for being soft and sweet. He said the secret lies in using special fermented water.

When the buns are finished, each one must be stamped with red plum blossom patterns on top. Red is believed to bring good fortune and wealth during the festival.

Brine Tofu is another must-have on the Spring Festival dining table for the villagers. After grinding soybeans, Cai Chunying poured the soybean milk into a large pot and boiled it.

After boiling, stirring, adding brine, pouring the soybean curd into a prepared lint-free muslin cloth, twisting and squeezing, the soybean milk transforms into tofu.

"Three, two, one," Cai and her fellow helpers chanted as they turned the tofu bag over together.

In her opinion, making handmade tofu is both laborious and exciting, bringing a sense of ceremony that has become increasingly absent, even in a remote village.

When dishes were made and served, villagers sang and danced joyously and put on performances with local features. Men and women, adults and children all participated in the performances.

They were mimicking the "36 walks of life" in old times, such as harvesting lotus nuts, as well as folklore.

Bamboo tubes, a local musical instrument, were played and folk songs sung on an ancient wooden lounge bridge above a stream. The bridge has been sheltering villagers from rain and accompanied them for hundreds of years as a public space to rest and talk.

The New Year atmosphere will continue into the first lunar month.

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