Sunday, December 21, 2008

Chinese Solstice

The howling, bitter wind awoke me this morning - December 21st - long before the sun attempted its daily token effort at warming the world. Mildly startled, I found myself awake, peering from the safety and warmth of my comforter at the hazy black and white shadows hiding in the corners - things that send small boys shivering for the depths of colorful car-and-truck bedspreads - and which have a knack for appearing at ungodly hours, no matter where you are in the world. It seems fated that the arctic wind finds me today; the shortest day of the year. Qufu is a sunny place and today will be no exception, but the darkness which, day after day, week after week, has been encroaching on all of our spirits takes its toll, and the icy bitterness the wind brings will not lift with the sun today, no matter how brilliant and cloudless the day may be.

My bed is comfortable and warm, but the howling wind - a sound not yet heard since moving to China nearly four months a go - sends a cold shudder straight through me, and serves as a reminder of the dark, cold winter I hide from, existing just inches outside my window. It's Sunday and I have no where to be for hours, so the prospect of burying myself in the heart-warming security of blankets, a pillow, and my imagination is so scintillating I'm happy to be awake to savor the moment. Somebody awesome once said that winter is best witnessed through a window with a glass of wine and a fireplace, but I prefer my trio this time.

I drift in and out of sleep, encountering a half-awake state which on most days would leave me ragged and annoyed, but today finds me happily accepting. I get up to pee - who knows what time it is, but it's still dark - and quickly make my way back, smiling, to bed until it's time to go shopping. Today Olivia, Rachel, and I eat jiaozi, or dumplings, with our Chinese tutor Wish. My eyes water on the way to the store, and Wish suddenly gets concerned, thinking I am upset. "No no," I joke, "my Western eyes just can't take the cold." Apparently watering eyes aren't common in China, or at least Wish hasn't experienced it - or not from cold anyway. I always did have sensitive eyes.

After we eat, Wish tells us that you eat jiaozi on the shortest day of the year for good luck. Like all Chinese traditions, there is a story, and Wish explains that, long ago, there was a woman named Zhang Zhong Jing, who noticed that during the winters many poor people's ears froze, and she wished to find a way to prevent and cure this. Zhang Zhong Jing came up with a special medicine (Wish explains that it is jiaozi, or something she put in the jiaozi, I'm not sure which) to help the poor people keep their ears from freezing, and you eat jiaozi in honor of her on this, the shortest day of the year. The tradition does not seem to be a major one, as it is the first any of us have heard it mentioned, but we enjoy it nonetheless.

I later googled Zhang Zhong Jing, and Wikipedia explained that Zhang Zhong Jing was actually a man, and he is considered to be the founder of "cold damage or 'Cold Disease' school of Chinese medicine." I liked the version Wish told better, but you always tend to like what you hear first, I suppose.

As this, the shortest day of the year, comes to a close, the failing sun reminds me of a "hang in there baby" poster; trying to offer some desperate sense of hope. The wind subsides with the sun, but the effects have been felt: "you're not out yet," it seems to taunt, with one last icy blast. In its bitterness, however, the wind becomes the salvation - with it comes change. I have never felt so connected to the solstice as I do here in this now familiar place. The celebrations, the ceremonies, the parties; I guess I always knew why, but I never understood. Not until now. Tomorrow will be longer, if even for a moment. And that...? That will make all the difference.


Nick said...

To give credit where credit is due, the last line is very much similar to the last line of Robert Frost's "The Road Less Traveled." This didn't occur to me at the time, but I imagine that somewhere deep in my memory the poem peeked its wonderfully written prose into my consciousness while I was writing the post.

erik said...

I heard from a Chinese friend that the jiaozi are shaped like ears, so if you eat them it will make your ears stronger.