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The Asian Reporter's

From The Asian Reporter, V23, #03 (February 4, 2013), pages 11 & 16.

Quirky, jam-packed compendium

Chinese Customs

By Xiang Wei

Better Link Press, 2008

Paperback, 115 pages, $15.95

By Josephine Bridges

The Asian Reporter

Have you ever wondered how long the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, lasts? Should you be looking forward to the Year of the Snake if you were born in a Snake year? Are there seasons similar to winter, spring, summer, and fall in China, or is there a different method of dividing the year? What is Buddha Jumps Over the Wall? What are Chinese babies encouraged to do at one month of age? Which Chinese talisman is a real — as opposed to mythological — animal? You will find answers to these questions, and a whole lot more, in the quirky, jam-packed compendium Chinese Customs.

"The first three days of the lunar calendar are a legal holiday in China," Xiang Wei writes, but celebrations "actually begin on the last day of the lunar calendar and continue till the 15th day of the first month, which is known as the Lantern Festival." The two-week-plus holiday is most commonly observed with family reunion dinners, firecrackers, scrolls, and dragon dances. According to the author, "It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of the traditional Chinese holidays," but two legends of the origins of the Spring Festival are included in Chinese Customs.

If you were born in the Year of the Snake, you should take care in the coming year, which is considered your vulnerable year. Red is considered an auspicious color and it is believed that wearing red is the "key to averting disasters that occur in a vulnerable year." People born in the outgoing Year of the Dragon, on the other hand, will be able to let down their guard.

The traditional Chinese calendar divides the year into 24 seasonal division points. "China invented gunpowder, paper, printing, and the compass," Wei points out. "The formation of the 24 points is another major milestone and exerts an impact no less than that of the ‘four great inventions.’" Lichun, known as the beginning of spring, "occurs around February every year when the climate is still frigid and spring in the true sense of the word is yet to come," so the seasonal division in which the Spring Festival occurs is "more correctly the harbinger of spring."

"Made with seafood, poultry, and different types of red meat," Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, or Fo Tiao Qiang, "is known for its high nutritional value and exquisite taste." Said to have originated in the Qing Dynasty "through generations of improvement, the soup is more delicious than ever." How the dish relates to the Buddha’s feats of leaping remains a mystery.

The "snatching" ritual — in which a table laden with objects, "such as seals, books, paper and pens, an abacus, tidbits, and toys, plus cooking utensils and needles and thread in the case of a baby girl" is placed within reach of a one-month-old baby — "reflects the high hopes parents have for their children." A baby who snatches a book may become a scholar, while snatching a seal may indicate a future as an official, and an abacus a career as a businessman.

The kylin, dragon, and phoenix are all Chinese talismans, but you won’t see any of them on a log in a pond, as you will the turtle, which is "regarded as a lucky talisman because of its long life span." Don’t miss the accompanying photo of a 200-year-old sea turtle wearing the character "Longevity" at Tianjin Aquarium Museum.

Chinese Customs suffers from some confusing typos, but the wealth of information more than offsets a few puzzling weaknesses. Xiang Wei’s book may be just what you need to get a good start on the Year of the Snake.

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