This story will be the quick confluence of two threads that will quickly be sewn together.
One. When I was living in Foshan, China, I often took the time on my days off to ride the subway to Guangzhou, the third largest city in the country basically just to walk around and see the city. If you Google “Things to do in Guangzhou,” you will almost certain exhaust that list within a few days. However, such is traveling that this sort of journey will not reveal all that Guangzhou has to offer.
It’s a truly wonderful city. I believe that if you know nothing of China or its history and culture, definitely go to Beijing and (probably) Shanghai. If you are deeply interested in Chinese culture, however, then Guangzhou is an amazing place because it highlights the difference between northern and southern culture very immediately and obviously.
So, on one of my off days, I headed on over to Guangzhou just to walk around Shamian Island, an area that was ceded to the British and French during the Opium Wars. It was a row of buildings known as the 13 Factories or 十三行, in one of those exquisite moments where Chinese just never translates into English.
For someone with as great a propensity to sweating as I, Guangdong Province is always a hot place. It perpetually saps your energy with its heat and humidity. So a day of walking around Guangzhou and I was tired. (Timeout on this thread.)
Two. Lantern Festival is a pretty cool holiday. It takes place on the fifteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar, which is two weeks after Chinese New Year or more pertinently the first full moon of the year. It seems that virtually every city, town or village has their own customs on this day, and so Guangzhou not only highlights the north-south divide of China, but the hyper individuality of each and every community. (Okay, let’s converge these threads.)
It’s quite simple, really. One of my off days I was off in Guangzhou, and as the day wore on I decided to go home, even though I didn’t really want to. So I hit the subway reluctantly, as I’m wont to do, to always want more. As I was zooming back underneath two massive municipalities connected by an unfathomably large subway system, I received a text from a Chinese friend reminding my that it was Lantern Festival and that I should do something quick yet cool in Foshan.
Certainly, I obliged. I would arrive in Foshan by 8 or so, partake in a short event and be in bed by 930-10. But by the time I properly understood his directions and was on this undertaking, I realized this was much longer, involved endeavor.
So the tradition in Foshan involved going to a place called Tonjiqiao which is a famous bridge and a place I’d seen on the subway and bus maps a million times and never given thought to. One theme of Chinese culture is the idea of crossing something. The act of crossing from something or somewhere to another place is very symbolic throughout Chinese culture
One common superstition of Chinese culture involved passing through a threshold. For those that have some sort of barrier on the bottom, it is especially relevant: men should step thorugh right leg first, and women left leg first. No idea precisely why, just that that’s the case.
Passing from one time or place to another is very meaningful, and on the holidays this symbolism is pushed further. Quite obviously, being a bridge Tongjiqiao is a place you must cross. As you cross it, you shed yourself of last year’s bad and bring in good luck for this year’s auspicious.
In any case, why was this an undertaking and not a cheap tourist pic? Well, as I began walking I noticed a sign that said 3600km, this way. I also noticed I’d been walking for about 15-20 minutes by that point, meaning this was, in total, a 5km walk. Sure that’s not so bad, but when you funnel a city’s worth of people toward the end, things get slow. It takes several hours to complete this walk.
Further, the amount of umbrellas out was just obnoxious. Southern Chinese despise rain to a shocking degree, considering how much it rains there. Pacific Northwesterners might hate rain, but if you don’t embrace it in the slightest life will be miserable. I had many students not come to class because of mists or because the news said it might be slightly overcast. Streets cleared at the sight of a gray cloud.
Earlier in the day it did rain. However, by nightfall there was in fact no rain. And so walking in a very crowded space, one would think even if there were but a bit of rain, umbrellas would be stowed away. Nope. I was poked in the eye at every step as people *fwhoo* opened their umbrellas. The police shouted over megaphones “Please put your umbrellas away! It’s not raining!”But still they plowed through with bumpershoots.
Anyways, one tradition is that you must buy a pinwheel and as you walk the pinwheel spins, also symbolizing the riddance of old and bad and the incoming goodwill your way. You march for a 5K to a bridge and as you do all illwell flies away. As you approach the bridge and arch people get rowdy and it’s a wonderfully celebratory moment.
One other tradition in Foshan is the throwing of cabbage. The Chinese love their puns and they often manifest themselves in fun ways. Facai means to make lots of money. It’s why the number eight is lucky. Eight is pronounced ba which sounds like fa which is to make money. Shengcai also means to make lots of money, as it does to throw or dispense of cabbage, which is what locals do as they leave the area of Tongjiqiao. There’s a giant statue of a cabbage and people literally buy up the city’s cabbage and hurl it at a green, leafy statue presumably in hopes they’ll make money in the upcoming year.
And as a final tidbit on the Lantern Festival in Foshan: no more cabbage! Cabbage is a very common dish in Chinese food. A normal veggie side dish is to heat oil (very, very hot) brown some garlic, and pour it over cabbage (or other veggies) and maybe some ginger and salt. It’s pretty good to be honest, and so I ordered it the next day.
It was – unfortunately when I saw the menu though – upped from its usual price of 10RMB to 15. Whatever, another 80 cents I thought. Then they came back and told me the restaurant was actually out for the day.
Because of the festival, they couldn’t serve cabbage. The city literaly ran out of cabbage. Oh well….
Anyways, I think this vignette serves to highlight how incredible China can be. The tradition of crossing Tongjiqiao and throwing cabbage is unique to Foshan and only Foshan. Every other city or town has their own customs. And in that way, you will never be able to see or understand every festival or story. I find that very liberating.
Let me know what you think in the comments below!
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