July 25, 2022
BEIJING – There’s no place to hide as ultimate solar term of summer arrives, Yang Yang reports.
At 6 minutes 49 seconds past 4 am, most parts of China entered the hottest period of 15 days in 2022. In ancient times, Chinese people named this period Dashu, or the Major Heat. It is the 12th of the 24 solar terms on the traditional Chinese calendar, the last solar term of summer.
One month has passed since the overhead sun reached its northernmost latitude on the Summer Solstice. As it is traveling back toward the equator, the star, however, seems not to have loosened its grip, continuing to scorch the North Hemisphere of the planet.
In the oppressive dog days, time seems to stop as it is broiling both in the morning and the afternoon with the stridulation of cicadas buzzing in the background.
Cicadas may stridulate on, but the woods sound even quieter, as a Chinese poem goes. In muggy summer afternoons, dragonflies hover low, preying over a pond in the middle of outspreading green lotus leaves. Fragrant lotus flowers, in bud or blooming, stand gorgeously upright in pink or white. Down in the water, fish swim on the surface gulping for air.
On summer nights of the first five days of Dashu, ancient Chinese people observed a natural wonder. Rotten grass turned into another form of life－fireflies. But now scientists have found that fireflies that live in the land lay eggs in dead grass, and during this period of time, young fireflies mature and airily fly out, bellies flickering.
For ancient Chinese people, fireflies bear many symbolic meanings. They symbolized summer, love and hope.
In the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), a young man called Che Yin, whose family could not afford lamp oil, caught dozens of fireflies and put them in a bag so that he could study at night. This story has become a part of an idiom used to describe hardworking students.
In the second five days of Dashu, the sultry weather oppressed and the soil absorbed moisture, as ancient Chinese people observed. Even if wind blows occasionally, it is only sweltering worse as if people were literally living in a steamer.
The moon will start to wane once it waxes, as Chinese people often say. In the last five days of this hottest period of the year, thunderstorms finally strike, cooling the air and announcing the end of hot days.
With much heat and rainfall, Dashu sees rice, cotton and maize enter the fastest-growing phase. However, it is also a time when natural disasters such as drought, flood or typhoons frequent, a challenging time for farmers.
In the north, farmers know that “Green onion fears rainfall, leek is afraid of sunshine, but rainfall in futian (dog days) benefit the growth of wheat,” as the proverb goes.
“Rainfall is important for crops during this period of time. My mother used to say ‘Rainfall in Dashu promises a good harvest for rice’. No rain, no rice,” says Li Yuehua, 69-year-old retired teacher in Suqian, East China’s Jiangsu province, who used to live in the countryside.
Born into a farmer’s family, Li has learned proverbs from her parents, which had been used to instruct their work. “If there is a draught during Dashu, irrigate as soon as possible,” she says, adding that “when Dashu arrives, sow the seeds of mustard. Sow beans before Xiaoshu (the Minor Heat) and mustard before Dashu.”
For 29-year-old Yang Liu in Suqian, among the unforgettable summer nights when she was little were those when she and her sisters lay under the starry skies and listened to adults tell stories of Niulang and Zhinyu while trying to recognize in the Milky Way the stars of Zhinyu (Vega) and Niulang (Altair), and the constellation of Jiang Taigong, (a famous sage during the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC)) Diaoyu (literally Jiang Taigong is fishing, or the Scorpio).
“The Milky Way was not always visible. But in the countryside two decades ago, there were few lights on at night. On clear nights, we could see the spectacular galaxy spanning across the sky from Northeast to Southwest. It’s breathtaking,” she says.
“Then the adults would teach us to tell which stars were Zhinyu and Niulang. It was not easy. I remember the Niulang constellation has a big bright star in the middle and two dimmer stars on the two sides, just reflecting his role in the folk tale,” she says.
Long, long time ago, there was a young man called Niulang living in the countryside who was diligent and poor. When his parents died, his elder brother took everything away, leaving him only an old buffalo that actually came from heaven.
Niulang lived a sad lonely life, until one day the buffalo suddenly opened its mouth and told Niulang that days later seven goddesses would descend from heaven and take a bath in a pond not far from their home.
At the buffalo’s help, Niulang stole the clothes of the youngest goddess Zhinyu, who was also the most beautiful, so that when it was time to go back to the heaven, Zhinyu was left behind. Somehow, Zhinyu fell in love with Niulang and married him.
They lived a legendary idyllic life. Niulang worked in the fields and Zhinyu weaved cloth at home and gave birth to a boy and a girl, until the business was found by Wangmu, the head of the goddesses. The old buffalo knew this scenario in advance, and told Niulang to keep its skin after it died.
One day, when Niulang was out, Zhinyu was seized and taken to heaven, leaving the two children at home. Niulang came back and found his wife had gone. He immediately put the children in two baskets, hung them on the two ends of a pole and shouldered it. The moment he donned the buffalo’s skin, he started ascending in the air and chased after his wife.
Seeing he almost caught up with Zhinyu, Wangmu pulled out her golden hairpin and waved it in the dark sky. A tremendous river immediately appeared, separating them. The river in the sky was the Milky Way.
The emperor of heaven, touched by Niulang’s perseverance, allowed the two to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month over a bridge formed by thousands of magpies. This day, Qixi, is a traditional Chinese festival dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), evolving from Chinese ancient people’s worship of the stars.
This year, Qixi will fall in the last five days of Dashu. In ancient times, it was a day when girls paid tribute to Zhinyu, the goddess excelling at needlework in charge of weaving clouds, praying for better skills and a good marriage. Nowadays, it has become Chinese Valentine’s Day.
Good at observing nature and following the changes to adjust their life and avoid diseases, Chinese people pay a lot of attention to resting and diet during Dashu.
What people need to care about in particular during this period of time is moisture, which, according to Chinese ancient people, was one of the major causes of illness, says Guo Wenbin, a scholar of the 24 solar terms.
In ancient times, people mixed ginger and brown sugar together and baked them under the scorching sun before they took the mixture to get rid of moisture inside the body. Other food that has the similar function includes lotus seeds, lotus roots and powder of deep roasted peanuts, he says.
Now many people favor litchi, watermelon and ice cream. However, “Chinese ancient people believed, during Dashu, people should eat less rich, cold, raw or fried food to keep our intestines comfortable and clean,” Guo says.
Apart from diet, people should slow down their pace of life and stay cheerful to maintain a good psychological status, Guo says.
“Dashu reveals wisdom that tells people, when the fervent summer culminates, we should prepare ourselves for the arrival of the peaceful autumn,” Guo says.
Apart from diet, special activities are also hosted for the arrival of Dashu.
In Jiazhi of Taizhou, Zhejiang province, people burn a Dashu Ship to pray for a smooth and healthy year. Legend has it that in the reign of the emperor Tongzhi (1862-1875) in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), epidemics always hit Jiazhi, especially around Dashu. To make things even worse, from July to September, Jiazhi, located at the place where the Jiaojiang River enters the East Sea, suffered from frequent high winds, typhoons and floods.
The Dashu Ship measures about 15 meters long and 3 m wide. Inside it carries a shrine, an incense table, and daily necessaries like water vats, tables, beds, pillows, and bedclothes, food such as pigs, sheep, chicken, fish, shrimps, and rice, and self-defense weapons like swords, guns and cannons.
On Dashu, more than 50 fishermen shoulder the Dashu Ship by turns walking in the streets, followed by performing teams such as dragon dance and waist drum dance. At the end of the ritual, the ship will be carried to the wharf before it is finally pulled out of the harbor into the sea. On the sea, the ship, loaded with all kinds of sacrifices, will be lit on fire and burned. Watching the ship on fire, people pray for a good harvest and good health.