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Maple Leaves, Mooncakes, and Sparrows Turning into Clams: Traditional Chinese Autumn

2016-10-05 21:53:54 William Matthews

It’s suddenly started feeling autumnal here in the UK. In China, the whole country is currently making the most of a week off to celebrate National Day – and certainly in the northern provinces, people will be taking in the rich reds, oranges, and yellows of the trees we associate with the season.

But actually, in terms of the Chinese lunar calendar, it’s been autumn since August – 9:52 am on the 7th August, to be precise. This is because the Chinese lunar year is divided into 24 ‘Solar Terms’, defined by the exact position of the sun in relation to the stars; the Beginning of Autumn is one of these, the Beginning of Winter arriving this year on 7th November.

This was incredibly important during China’s long history as a predominately agricultural society, the Beginning of Autumn marking the time to start preparing for harvest. It was also important for the emperor. One of his crucial functions as ruler was to ensure harmony between human affairs and the continuous changes of the cosmos, and on the first day of the Beginning of Autumn he would travel to the west of the capital. The west is correlated with autumn, and autumn was also the season for military training, so on his return the emperor would also hold a feast for his soldiers. The season, and the western direction, are also associated with the tiger, said to descend from the mountains in the autumn months.

The most famous Chinese autumn celebration, though, is the Mid-Autumn Festival. Once you realise that autumn started in August, it suddenly makes sense why this festival tends to happen in September. Again, this festival is closely tied to agriculture, celebrating the harvest of rice and wheat. Today, the festival remains extremely popular, epitomised by the ubiquitous mooncake, a pastry filled with anything from lotus paste to salted egg.

The festival is accompanied by lanterns, eloquently reflecting the Chinese character for autumn, made up of the symbols for grains and fire. Like the Spring Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for reunion with family. The gathering together of family reflects the gathering of the harvest – and this is celebrated at the full moon. The moon is held to be especially round and bright on this day, a shape echoed by the mooncakes and symbolising the union of the family.

Following the lunar calendar, after the Mid-Autumn Festival preparations begin for the coming cold of winter. This year, the 23rd October will see the beginning of the last Solar Term of autumn. Its name is Frost Descends Shuangjiang, and the chill approach of winter is evoked by its associations with the yellowing of plants and the falling of their leaves, and insects’ retreat into hibernation. By this time, autumn colours have spread across much of the country. Beijing, in particular, is famously beautiful in late autumn; Fragrant Hill park in the northeast of the city holds a Red Leaf Festival for several weeks around this time, the blaze of its maple leaves heralding the height of the season.

It’s a season that well-reflects the constant dynamism of nature that has been so important in the development of Chinese culture, from folk customs to philosophy. Autumn in the UK, and the weather we associate with it, spreads itself out over a few months. This is much less true of China. The size of the country makes it impossible to generalise – the average October temperature for the southern metropolis of Guangzhou is a balmy 24°C, whereas current temperatures in Mohe, China’s northernmost county, are fluctuating between a daily high of around 5°C and a night-time low of -4°C.

So it’s in China’s temperate middle latitudes that autumn is perhaps best appreciated. The fiery beauty of Beijing’s maple leaves, or the pleasant cool of Hangzhou’s November, are fleeting affairs of two or three weeks before winter really starts. But the end of the season brings its own charm. In Beijing, street hawkers start wheeling out their smoking barrels of roasting sweet potatoes, and the rich, comforting smell of roasted chestnuts begins to fill the hutongs – a pleasant reminder of home during my year as a student in the capital. Something I remember as especially evocative of the end of autumn in Hangzhou was the sudden appearance of meat and fish hanging out to dry outside shops. A friend of mine, the owner of a teahouse, took me along with him to a nearby square to cover some choice cuts of pork in a pungent cure of salt and peppercorns. Recipes like these yield the ingredients for braised dishes and soups later in the year.

As I write this, we are well over halfway through the Chinese lunar autumn. In four days’ time, its penultimate solar term will begin – Cold Dew, Hanlu. The traditional correlates of this time are the yellow bloom of chrysanthemums, the return of geese, and, recalling an understanding of nature that prevailed before animal migration was well understood, the descent of sparrows into the sea and their transformation into clams. There is still time to enjoy the natural beauty of autumn before the Frosts Descend.

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