This is Wulajie, a small town about thirty km to the north of Jilin City, Jilin Province in northeastern China. Many Manchu people, an ethnic minority, live here.
This elm tree has been standing here for over 400 years, witnessing one CNY after another.
Chinese New Year (CNY), also called the Spring Festival, is based on the Chinese lunar calendar. Although celebrations take place on the last day of the twelfth month, preparations for it start much earlier.
The Laba Festival falls on the 8th day in the twelfth month.
It’s customary to eat laba congee on this day, made with peanuts, dates, walnuts, almonds, and various grains.
But in Granny Zhang’s house, laba congee is replaced with laba rice.
She uses “yellow rice”, which is broomcorn millet.
Add red beans.
The rice is golden yellow, soft, and glutinous.
They have a saying, “Once you eat laba rice, you know the CNY is 22 and half days away.” (How they get the half day, I don’t know.)
Children and grandchildren gradually return to the family home.
They come bearing gift. It’s not expensive, or branded, but it’s Granny Zhang’s favourite.
The villagers address Granny Zhang as Mrs Fu. She’s 84 years old, and the family matriarch.
Once the preparations for CNY start, she would take out this mould.
It’s used to make Manchurian momo, steamed buns with various fillings.
The three daughters-in-law of Mrs Fu are busy in the kitchen.
The oldest daughter-in-law prepares dough from broomcorn millet.
The second daughter-in-law makes red mung bean balls.
With kneaded millet dough as the skin and red mung bean balls as the filling, they make buns.
黏豆包 sticky steamed buns stuffed with red mung beans
炕 kang is a combination of bed and stove. It’s heated from a stove beneath floor level or from a fire in the adjacent kitchen. Almost the entire winter of a northwesterner is spent on a kang like this. Sleeping, watching TV, playing cards, chatting, and making dumplings.
The men knead the dough into thin pieces of dumpling skin.
While the women stuff the dumplings with homemade fillings.
Kids are in charge of lining up the dumplings.
No one can resist tasting the dumplings.
But most of these are frozen. The temperature outside is close to minus 30 degrees Celsius.
The frozen dumplings are to be eaten over the entire month.
Frozen rice cake. Made with rice, flour, and green beans.
Frozen stewed assorted vegetables.
Some distance away, another villager, Mr Wang, is splitting wood in his front yard.
Traditional wood-burning stoves are still used here, hence the importance of preparing firewood.
Wang is a hunter.
When the ground is blanketed with snow, he would go out in search of prey, with his faithful companion.
The falconer’s training pays off, as the gyrfalcon helps him find and capture a hare.
Wang doesn’t kill the hare, as he intends to give it as a present a few days later.
In the same village, Mr Xie is busy with his family workshop.
He’s making zaotang (“hearth candy”) out of maltose.
Zaotang is only made once a year.
Mr Xia wakes up before sunrise.
To sharpen his tools.
He’s the village butcher, and he’s been invited to Mrs Fu’s house for an important job.
Back in Mrs Fu’s house, the men set up an outdoor stove, prepare firewood, and boil water.
The women are in the kitchen, washing vegetables, and cooking rice.
This pig weighs more than 100 kg.
Mr Xia arrives, and slaughters the pig.
Then Mrs Fu’s nephew takes over as the acknowledged executive chef.
While he organises the food preparation work, guests arrive one after another.
Mr Wang brings two hares as presents.
Big pieces of pork are boiled.
Liver, pork rind, and pork hanging tender are plated separately.
Pork belly and pork brisket.
Villagers gather in the heated room for a simple banquet.
The usually empty street becomes crowded on market day, as townsfolk make purchase for CNY.
Everything, from to frozen fish, to fruits, to livestock, can be found here.
Mr Xie’s zaotang is sold here.
Mrs Fu sweeps her front yard. Today is the 23rd day of the twelfth month. The Day of the Kitchen God, also known as Little CNY.
Zaotang is offered to the Kitchen God as a “bribe”, in the hopes that when he reports to the Jade Emperor, he’ll have nothing but good words to say.
Preparation work doesn’t stop until the day of CNY. It’s not just about food.
These paper-cut characters and patterns will go on doors and windows.