While growing up in Hawai’i, I was always a little jealous of my Chinese friends. They got to celebrate two New Years, once on January 1, and again in late January/early February for Chinese New Year. Moreover, their Chinese New Year was actually a two week Spring festival, where all the children received special red envelopes with money in them.
Though I have long been familiar with many Chinese New Year customs, I did not know very much about the fearful single-horned monster portrayed in the dramatic and colorful lion dance. Thanks to a captivating and delectable new picture book, now we can all meet the famous Nian Monster of ancient legend as he descends upon modern day Shanghai and is cleverly outwitted by a feisty young girl.
In The Nian Monster by Andrea Wang and Alina Chau (Albert Whitman, 2016), young Xingling wonders why all the Chinese New Year decorations are red, so her grandmother (Po Po) tells her all about the Nian Monster — a ferocious creature with “jaws as wide as caverns” and “teeth sharper than swords,” who would get so hungry every Spring, he left his home in the mountains to consume entire villages.
While there are quite a few books describing the many wonderful cultural traditions associated with Chinese New Year, none of them so thoroughly tugs at my heartstrings like A New Year’s Reunion by Yu Li-Qiong and Zhu Cheng-Liang (Candlewick, 2011).
This luminous, poignant story opens with mother and child welcoming father home. They only see him during Chinese New Year since he works far away. At first, little Maomao is understandably wary of the prickly bearded stranger, but after a haircut he looks “more like Papa the way he used to be.”
They treasure every precious moment spent together, doing ordinary fix-ups around the house and participating in holiday activities (making sticky rice balls, visiting friends, watching the dragon dance on Main Street). Thrilled when she gets the lucky fortune coin her dad had tucked into one of the rice balls, Maomao is later devastated when she loses it playing in the snow. The coin, now a symbol of their singular bond and a treasured token of their reunion, eventually turns up. Time to say goodbye comes much too soon; Maomao places the coin in her father’s large palm, a parting gift laced with her with sweet anticipation for next year’s visit.
It’s easy to see why this book earned the prestigious Feng ZiKai Chinese Children’s Picture Book Award and was cited by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2011. Zhu Cheng-Liang’s beautifully evocative, color saturated gouache paintings are by turns joyous, poignant, playful, and endearing.
Interesting details provide a glimpse of lifestyle and customs in Maomao’s part of the world, and the artist’s brilliant use of red accents in every spread creates continuity and harmony. A symbol of happiness and good fortune, red is a character all its own, a vibrant heartbeat enlivening this timeless celebration. Telling body language, especially in the father-daughter spreads, effectively renders an emotional mélange ranging from unabashed joy to a restrained but fully palpable sorrow.
Apparently there are approximately 100 million migrant workers in China who return home only once a year during New Year’s. Transit systems make special provisions to accommodate this, the largest annual migration in the world, several weeks preceding New Year’s Eve. It is also believed there are more interurban trips made during this time than the entire population in China.
A New Year’s Reunion is definitely one of my all-time favorite books about Chinese New Year, a classic that should be in every home and school library to be savored again and again. Readers will likely gain a newfound appreciation for the family gatherings they take for granted and the luxury of having their loved ones close by throughout the year. I also see this story resonating with military families who must endure lengthy separations. Highly recommend this lovely, lovely book!
A NEW YEAR’S REUNION written by Yu Li-Qiong illustrated by Zhu Cheng-Liang first published in 2008 by Hsin Yi Publications, Taiwan first American edition published by Candlewick Press, 2011 Full Color Picture Book for ages 3+, 40 pp. Cool themes: Lunar New Year, families, multicultural celebrations, China, social studies
#7 in an eclectic collection of notable noshes to whet your appetite and brighten your day.
So, as I was reading and drooling throughDumpling Days, I came to the part when Pacy’s cousin Clifford explains how you can tell wontons from dumplings — dumplings are shaped like ears.
He tells the story of a very famous Chinese doctor who supposedly invented dumpling soup. Ah! I had never heard this story before and found it not only fascinating, but quite uncanny, as a character in my picture book, Dumpling Soup, thinks dumplings look like elephant ears. Little did I realize the very first “ears” had great medicinal benefits. Totally cool!
STORY OF DUMPLING SOUP
Once there was a famous doctor, Zhang Zhongjing, who lived by the river in a cold part of China. He treated and cured many things, but in the winter, the things he treated most were people’s ears! That sounds strange, I know, but where he lived in China, the winters were particularly cold. The icy wind whipped and burned any exposed skin.
It was so cold that when a villager joked that his breath froze into pieces of ice in the air, all believed him because even if the cold did not freeze one’s breath, it really did freeze people’s ears. The doctor was kept busy during the winters treating frostbitten ears. He knew that people with frostbite needed warmth to heal, so he began to make a remedy that would warm peoples’ insides as well as their outsides. He cooked meat with warming herbs and finely chopped it. Then he wrapped it in thinly rolled dough and boiled the pieces in soup with more herbs. When the mixture was finished, he called it “soup that takes away the cold,” or “qu han jiao er tang.” He then served it to his frostbitten patients, who not only healed quickly, but enjoyed the soup so much that they continued to eat it.
People made the soup at home, usually eating it in the winter. They say the dumpling is the shape it is because it is made to resemble an ear, in honor of Doctor Zhongjing’s treatment of people’s frostbitten ears. The name of the soup, qu han jiao er tang, was shortened to jiao er tang, and the dumplings were eventually called jiaozi.
~ from “Story of Dumpling Soup,” Dumpling Days by Grace Lin (Little, Brown, 2012), page 119.
Zhang Zhongjing (150-219 AD) was an eminent physician in the Han Dynasty and is extremely well known in modern Chinese medicine.
He wrote China’s first book (actually 16 volumes worth), combining medical theory with his own experiences as a practitioner, analyzing causes, symptoms and methods of treatment. He recorded some 300 classic prescriptions, many of which are still used today. For his first dumplings he boiled mutton with warming herbs like chili (cayenne), which improved circulation and promoted healing. His “Warming Ear Soup” is traditionally eaten on the nights of Winter Solstice and Lunar New Year’s Eve.