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March 4, 2017

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Ancient traditions as bugs make comeback

AS thunder rumbles and temperatures rise, the solar term known as Awakening of Insects, or jingzhe, marks the awakening of all creatures after their winter slumber.

Occurring in early March, jingzhe is an important term in agriculture as insects hatch from eggs buried under the soil and dig their way to the surface. In olden times, it was assumed that spring thunder was what awakened these bugs, although today it is understood that this process is kicked off by warming weather.

According to an ancient Chinese proverb, Awakening of Insects kicks off “three periods of waiting” — namely waiting for peaches to blossom, waiting for orioles to sing, and waiting for the swallows to return from the south. It’s also a time of anticipation for the blooming of seasonal flowers, like peach blossoms and roses.

Awakening of Insects falls tomorrow this year. Hearing thunder on that day, or shortly thereafter, is considered a sign of good luck and an indicator of favorable weather to come.

Farmers in some southern regions may have spread crop seeds already by this point, or be faced with the possibility of dispelling insects that threaten to eat their crops. And for livestock and domestic bird keepers, they should be working on epidemic prevention.

The God of Thunder in Chinese mythology is pictured as a man with a bird’s beak and big wings. He has a series of drums around him and holds a big drumstick. His every beat creates thunder, which awakens the universe as well as all living creatures.

Hoping for a year with good weather, many rural households will place a picture of the thunder god on the wall with offerings below.

As the god always beats his drums on the day of Awakening of Insects, this is also believed to be an auspicious day to attach leather to drums.

Eating pears and fried ‘insects’

There is a tradition in many regions of China to eat pears during the Awakening of Insects.

This tradition is said to have come from a family of business people surnamed Qu in Shanxi Province. A member of this family named Qu Baichuan set off to start his own business far from home in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). His father gave him a pear and told him that a Qu ancestor started his first business by trading pears. Eating the pear would help him remember the past and create his own glory. Qu Baichuan succeeded, and the tradition of eating pears on Awakening of Insects was then followed by many other business starters.

There are also other versions of the origin of this tradition, such as eating pears as a wish to make insects leave one’s crops, since the Chinese name for “pear,” or li, is pronounced the same as “leave.”

Eating pears in spring is health-benefiting, as the juicy fruit helps nourish the throat and relieve coughing which may be common in the season.

Eating fried “insects” is another tradition in some areas, as a wish to avoid pestilence. Rather than eating real insects, people traditionally fry beans, wheat or rice on the day and eat these instead. The Yao ethnic people in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region usually fry corn; people in Jiangsu Province fry sticky rice; those in Shaanxi Province fry soybeans; and the Ke ethnic people in Fujian Province use beans or wheat instead.

Most households will present this particular dish on Awakening of Insects. The family will sit together, crunch loudly, while crying out “eat Insects!”

Beat the ‘contemptible men’

This tradition is not about hitting any real person, but a small paper figure that symbolizes obstacles to a family’s fortune.

It originated from the tradition of dispelling insects, mice, ants and snakes that usually appears in the Awakening of Insects. Traditionally, people will burn herbs like moxa and spread the smoke in every corner of the house to dispel unfavorable animals and moldy smells. The practice of beating paper effigies was later added as a necessary procedure to dispel “moldy luck” (bad luck).

Distracting the ‘tiger’

In some Chinese regions, the mythical tiger is believed to be the god of disputation. It also appears on the Awakening of Insects to cause arguments and quarrels. To protect themselves, people will make a paper tiger on the day. While worshiping it, people will smear pig’s blood and raw pork on the tiger’s mouth, so that it will be busy eating rather than causing problems.


Editor’s note:

Many people equate China with the lunar calendar, but the sun has also played a pivotal role in how the Chinese view life cycles. The ancient Chinese developed what is known as the 24 solar terms, which prescribed how people lived and worked, especially in rural areas. The solar terms originated in the 16th and 11th centuries BC and were perfected in their present form during the Western Han Dynasty (206-220 BC). In November 2016, their significance was recognized by inclusion in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This series explores each of the 24 solar terms.


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