With the help of the nature, the preserved meat helps us survive the cold winter
In 2021, the lunar eve of the year with the Heavenly Stem of Xin and the Earthly Branch of Chou (辛丑年), the COVID-19 pandemic was still not yet over, and lockdown was still at force. It was difficult for expatriates who worked or studied overseas to return to their hometown to gather with their families. As said by ancient Chinese, “staying outside alone and being alienated (獨在異鄉為異客)”. I also faced this situation: staying as a guest in the Hong Kong Island, going to the supermarket alone to buy foodstuff as if these were a feast on the Lunar New Year Eve. It was exactly on that day when I found many people purchasing the stirred sticky rice with assorted Cantonese preserved meat (臘味糯米飯), which triggered my postulation that there might be an essential dish for the family feast on Lunar New Year Eve in Guangdong and Hong Kong area. The taste of popular Cantonese preserved meat is so special that the fragrance has probably been imprinted on the soul of Guangdong people.
However, the reason why I ruminate about stirred sticky rice with preserved meat is not mainly due to the remembrance over the past Lunar New Year Eve of the Xin-Chou year, but the reflection over the forthcoming solar term Lesser Snow (小雪) in the year of the Heavenly Stem of Kuei and Earthly Branch of Mao (癸卯年). After the arrival of the solar term The Beginning of Winter (立冬), we soon find the arrival of the solar term Lesser Snow. Temperature and air humidity keep falling, which is not favourable to the livelihood of bacteria in the air. Thus, it is an appropriate period for preserving foodstuff. Ancient Chinese did not have modern scientific devices, yet they were good at observation and postulation. Based on their experiences and wisdom accumulated in daily life, they discovered the characteristics of the natural environment at the period between the two solar terms Lesser Snow and Greater Snow (大雪), making good use of it to prepare for preserved vegetables and preserved meat. Therefore, the practice of “preparing preserved, dried, and seasoned foodstuff for storage to survive the cold winter (冬臘風醃, 蓄以禦冬)” among Chinese household has gradually developed. It is a pity that people don’t pay much attention to such a special practice which has already been so common in everywhere in China. My sojourn in both Northern and Southern China witnessed the following examples. Since the arrival of the solar term Lesser Snow, people in Fuzhou (福州) and surrounding areas began to prepare for the fermented vegetables in lees (Zaocai 糟菜) with large green mustard leaves (芥菜). In Beijing and surrounding areas, people prepared pickled vegetables with Potherb Mustard (雪裏蕻). As winter arrived, butcheries in Beijing began to promote their service for helping one to make salted sausages. In Hong Kong, shops selling newly made preserved sweet sausages began to grow. These seasoned vegetables and preserved meat with special flavour would accompany people to wait for the coming of the new year. In this sense, the solar terms (節氣) provided not only essential information of weather to guide farm work for ancient Chinese but also wisdom for daily living, which still nourish modern Chinese and add spices to life in the four seasons.
It may not snow on the day of Lesser Snow, as often mentioned in many introductory articles on the twenty-four solar terms. However, there are different descriptions on the fifteen-day period of the solar term Lesser Snow in ancient Chinese texts. It was written in the Book of Charms and Omens inspired by the Book of Filial Piety (Xiaojing Wei, 孝經緯) that fifteen days after the Beginning of Winter, when the tail of the Seven Stars of the Northern Dipper (北斗七星) points to the direction of Hai (亥, approximately North-Northwest), Lesser Snow would arrive. Therefore, during the period of Lesser Snow, “heaven and earth becomes hazy. It rains when the weather is warm while it snows when the weather is cold. The character Lesser (Xiao, 小) means that the coldness is not yet severe while the snow is not yet heavy despite the cold weather (天地積陰，溫則為雨，寒則為雪。言小者，寒未深而雪未大也)”. In modern understanding, one could regard Lesser Snow as a term to describe the climatic state in terms of temperature and humidity: temperature is cold but not freezing cold while the air is not extremely humid. Thus, even if there is snow, it is mostly light snow.
For general people and particularly farmers, they care more about how the solar terms inform them about the farm work, ways of living, and livelihood. Therefore, they have their own understanding of the solar term Lesser Snow. This farmers’ adage manifested the understanding of Lesser Snow from farmers’ perspective. “Abundance of snowflakes in Lesser Snow indicate an affluent forthcoming year (小雪雪满天，來年必豐年)”, which represents the wishes of farmers in Central China area to see snowflakes in Lesser Snow as it is a sign of good harvest in the forthcoming year. However, another farmer’s adage in the Southern China tells something different: “Snow in Lesser Snow indicates drought for more than three months in the next year (小雪下了雪，來年旱三月)”. We should note that while both adages have rhyming words, for example, “Tien 天, Lian年” (Heaven, Year) in the previous one and “Xue雪, Yue月” (Snow, Months) in this one, their meanings are totally opposite to each other. The adage from the South warns that snow in Lesser Snow is not a good sign. Instead, it is a warning signal of drought in the forthcoming year. As China is a big country, it is natural that there are diverse weather conditions in different areas. Therefore, it is not surprising that people in different areas have different expectations and understandings of the same sign of the same solar term.
Finally, we would like to discuss an ancient Chinese poem on this solar term. The majority of ancient literary works on Lesser Snow were lamenting on the passage of time, hardship in life, hair turning as white as snow in aging process etc., which are ordinary themes expressing the mood of sadness inspired by the seasons.
On the contrary, a poem by a Tang Dynasty monk Wu Ke (無可, circa 9th century A.D. ) titled Lesser Snow (〈小雪〉) deserved special attention. The first two sentences of the poem “each snowflake is so delicate (片片互玲瓏)” and “they clustered together so that winds could not pass through (漸密更無風)” presented the scenario that small snowflakes fall on the ground and cover everything. In the middle part of the poem, the author described the benefits of snow from two perspectives. First, he mentioned that snow moistens the barren land and brings signs of fortune for people: “its moisture nurtures the barren land and sends the sign of fortune in the emperor’s palace (作膏凝瘠土，呈瑞下深宮)”. Second, he mentioned that plants and trees are nourished while the rivers and mountains appears to be more magnificent: “Plants and trees were moistened, while mountains and rivers became even more spectacular (草木潛加潤，山河更益雄)”. Finally, the poem was concluded by hailing the big nature: “From these I know the supreme power of the nature, the nature should have the full credit of nurturing everything (因知天地力，覆育有全功)”. Monk Wu Ke’s surname was Jia (賈). He became a Buddhist monk when he was young, and was a sworn brother (縱弟, sworn brotherhood of people with same surname) of famous poet Jia Dao (賈島, 779-843) in late Tang Dynasty. From this poem, we can see the greatness of nature through subtle details, praising its beauty and its nourishment during Lesser Snow. Perhaps the author’s Buddhist background allowed him to perceive the work with compassion. Thus, this poem is different from the mournful mood of ordinary authors. This poem may not be perfect in terms of literal skills, but it brings us to a broader perspective to higher meanings. Therefore, I would like to borrow the poem’s message to praise the nature and make a wish. May the world benefit from the fortune snow and everybody be healthy, peaceful, happy, and fortunate.
2. 黄奭（1809-1853）：《孝經緯》（上海：上海古籍出版社，1993年）， 第三卷《援神契》，頁16。
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