29 December 2004 2004 nian 12 yue 29 hao

Journal: White Christmas at Sun-and-Moon Mountains

Like last year, Christmas was unescapable. My workmates seemed quite excited about the prospect of helping me celebrate, and set about planning the big day. They even managed to find a few additional young people to make up the numbers (Yang Ying's roommate, an old student of Mr Zhu's, etc). Over the last few weeks, I've made a few friends of my own, but unfortunately all of them had other plans and weren't able to attend.

On Christmas Eve, I heard some unmerry news from my family. Apparently my parents, grandmother, and sister were sitting around drinking tea and eating shortbread that day, and my father commented that he suddenly couldn't see anything on his left side. They took him to hospital, and after tests the doctors concluded that he had probably suffered a mini-stroke. I might add, although it is not related to health or Christmas, that I would quite like to be enjoying tea and shortbread with my family. Anyway, my dad's vision returned to normal quite quickly.

On Christmas Day we squeezed into Mr Zhu's car (two in the front, four in the back) and headed to Sun-and-Moon Mountains (Riyue Shan), a mountain range south-east of Qinghai Lake. The hills were covered with a layer of snow that had fallen during the night, and the grey fog above us dissipated just as we arrived, revealing a clear blue sky. It was a very pretty sight.

Sun Pavilion and Moon Pavilion.

Snow-covered landscape.

Chased by a snowball-wielding maniac, completely unprovoked I might add (since the snowball I threw didn't even hit her).

The story goes that during the Tang Dynasty, the emperor sent one of his relatives as a bride for the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. Upon reaching these hills, the princess was so overcome by homesickness that she fell down and wept, and where her tears fell a spring appeared. This happened over a millenium ago, but the two pavilions have only been built in the last two decades, and most of the other features of this scenic spot such as the 11 metre statue of the princess and a small temple cum museum of Tibetan art have only appeared in the last three years, as Qinghai slowly learns what tourism is all about.

From Sun-and-Moon Mountains, we drove to the edge of frozen Qinghai Lake and had lunch at a restaurant there, with fish from the lake as the main dish. A chinese Christmas dinner!

Fish Facts

One custom that I have read about in the english-language literature on chinese culture is that when one side of a fish has been eaten, it should not be turned over but rather the bone should be removed to give access to the meat underneath. Turning a fish over is superstitiously associated with the capsize of a fishing boat. I suspect that this custom is probably followed by somebody, somewhere, but all the people that I've eaten with just flip the fish over.

A more wide-spread custom is positioning a fish on the table so that the head points towards the guest. Also true is that a fish is an auspicious image ("fish" in chinese is a homophone for "surplus"). It often appears in the colourful prints that can be seen hanging in many rural homes, like this "chubby baby" print:

Image source: http://www.1930shanghai.com/items/263067/item263067store.html

Back in Xining that evening, we were joined by a few other people for dinner at a restaurant. I tasted some naijiu, Mongolian liquor distilled from milk (traditionally mare's milk, although nowadays the commercial brews all seem to use cow's milk). It was quite palettable, with an unexpected aniseed flavour which I rather liked.

We sang some songs. I've decided I prefer this a capella singing to karaoke, since it's more personal and the music doesn't burst your eardrums. I sung a couple of Christmas carols, but not "Jingle Bells", although it was requested. It's bad enough that this is the most ubiquitous carol in english-speaking countries; I don't want to encourage the misconception overseas that this childish song is the only english Christmas carol. The lyrics aren't even about Christmas (although versions in other languages might be, such as the Mandarin version that John mentions).

There are many misconceptions in China about Christmas. For example, I keep encountering the idea that Christmas Eve is the most important part of the festival, which admittedly is true in some countries but not in America, which in China is usually taken as the benchmark of western culture. I've also heard December 25 being referred to as shengdan kuanghuanye, "Christmas carnival night". In my country, the Christmas season is certainly characterised by Christmas pageants and wild parties, by not Christmas Day itself. I think what's happening is that China (particularly the younger generation) is establishing its own secular Christmas customs, and these in turn are being confused with western tradition. But exactly why so many chinese wish to celebrate a western festival remains a mystery to me: is it cosmopolitan, commerce-driven, or just an excuse to party?

Yang Ying and Mr Zhu gave me the best gift in the world: chocolate! So all in all it was a good Christmas. It is my second Christmas in China, and like last year I have to wonder, where will I be celebrating Christmas 2005?

it is an exactiy excuse to party, to the things they would not do in those common day.
carolcute [homepage]
30.12.2004 , 16:22

"exactly" and "days". sorry
30.12.2004 , 16:24

A chinese reader named Alice emailed me, and agreed that traditionally there was a superstition in China about flipping fish. She says that older people might have this belief (for example, her grandmother does), but most other people do not. However, she suggests being careful if you are eating a meal with somebody who drives a vehicle, since some consider flipping a fish to be an omen of a car accident. The solution she recommends is just to ask first: “Does anybody mind if I flip this fish?”

I talked about this with an american couple, and they said that they had encountered this superstition before, however that was in Taiwan. Areas like Taiwan and Hong Kong still preserve some traditional chinese customs which the mainland has lost.

Alice also suggested some reasons why western Christmas customs may be misunderstood in China. Firstly, Christmas in China lacks the original religious basis. Secondly, in the west the main force behind Christmas celebration is the family, whereas in China it is mainly the young generation. Thirdly, the translation of Christmas Eve as ping’an ye (“Silent Night”, just like the song) may have led to misunderstanding, and she adds that young people would prefer to celebrate in the evening anyway.
01.01.2005 , 21:03

Happy New Year !!
It"s first time that I comment in your page.
I like these pictures...especially second one;Mountains with snow. Oh...I little miss snow.
04.01.2005 , 17:06

ok you had me worried there for a moment as i always flip the fish over, and i had never given it even a moment's thought
daniel [homepage]
14.01.2005 , 02:03

Comments disabled. Sorry for any inconvenience.

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