Traveling through solar time, the year starts with spring

Spring Begins or lichun is the first solar term, occurring in early Februar. It marks the start of change, with temperatures rising and days getting longer.
Zhang Ciyun / SHINE

Spring Begins or lichun is the first solar term, occurring in early February when the sun reaches 315 degrees longitude. It marks the start of change, with temperatures rising and days getting longer.

A Chinese proverb describes the days after Spring Begins as the “three periods of waiting” — waiting for the warm wind from the east to thaw the land, waiting for insects to reawaken, and waiting for the fish to swim with melting ice on their backs.

These are the signs that traditionally told farmers their busy season was about to begin anew.

Spring Begins, which falls on February 3 this year, was traditionally welcomed by rural ceremonies praying for a good harvest. An emperor of the Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256 BC) required three days or fasting and led his entourage of high-ranking officials on a procession to farmland.

Ju Mang, the god of spring in Chinese mythology, figured prominently in rites of welcoming spring. Legend paints him as a god with the head of a man and the body of a bird, who rode two dragons. Praying for Ju Mang’s bless or inviting him into the home were major themes of the celebrations.

Many of these old but colorful ceremonies survive in rural China. Statues of Ju Mang are carried by sedan, accompanied by music and dancing. Residents throw seeds into the air to symbolize a good harvest ahead.

On the eve of Spring Begins, two actors would dress as “spring officials,” loudly proclaiming the start of the season through the streets. A boy dressed in green would visit every household, chanting spring rhymes and distributing paintings of cattle.

Whip the spring cattle

The practice of “whipping the spring cattle” is part of the ceremonies. In ancient Songjiang, now a suburban district of Shanghai, the government would commission a large paper figure of a cow and fill it with packets of crop seeds. On the morning of Spring Begins, the cow would be paraded through the streets, accompanied by dancing young men and musicians playing gongs. At the end of the ceremony, the government officials would shred — or “whip” — the cow to release the seed packets.


"Biting the spring" involves eating turnips or radishes.

Biting spring

Another part of seasonal celebration was called “biting the spring.” It involved eating turnips or radishes. That custom originated after an epidemic struck a Chinese village, prompting one Taoist monk to meditate under an ancient tree for hours.

Legend has it that the monk rushed back to his temple, dug up some turnips and inserted chicken feathers in the ground. The movement of the feathers was said to be a sign of earth energy. Villagers who ate the turnips were healed of disease.

The villagers knelt to show their gratitude, and the monk told them it was a fairy who imparted the cure to him during his meditation. He urged the residents to deliver turnips to all nearby villages so that more people could be saved from the scourge.

Turnips weren’t the only food used to celebrate Spring Begins. Chunjuan, spring rolls or thin cakes filled with vegetables and meat, were also an important part of the fare.

Spring rolls

The custom of eating spring rolls can be traced back to the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420). Fresh vegetables like shallots, garlic, leeks, cabbage and coriander were wrapped in paper-thin flour cake. The pungent vegetables were believed to be effective in freeing body energy and preventing early spring flu.

Other seasonal vegetables like celery were later added during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). While in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the spring cakes were made in wrapped rolls, very similar to today's deep-fried spring rolls.

Special Reports