One year ago the celebration of Chinese New Year was abruptly interrupted as a severe lockdown came into effect less than two days before families were due to gather in their homes for the main meal of celebration, a traditional event that is rooted in centuries of Chinese history. One day prior to the unexpected lockdown I enjoyed a fine evening meal with a Chinese family at a restaurant in Wuhan, that meal being their way to ensure that their wider circle of relations had an opportunity to eat together prior to the smaller family gatherings a couple of days later.
In a country where food is a huge part of the culture, offering endless possibilities for discussion, the restrictions that came into effect one year ago could be seen as similar to the cancelation of Christmas dinner in other countries, a painful and unthinkable development for many people.
Thankfully, positive results emerged from the three months of strict measures that people endured in China at the beginning of 2020. While there is still a level of caution about a possible resurgence of the coronavirus here, life has largely returned to normal for people. Restaurants are open. Students and teachers go to their schools. Public transport is working as it did before.
The evening meal of Thursday February 11th will probably be a time when all of China breaths a collective sigh of relief as we welcome the Year of the Ox, saying farewell to a year that has been so challenging. One year ago as people adjusted to severe restrictions of movement, many of them eventually began to joke about reducing their plans for the year to just one simple focus, namely to be alive at the end of the year. Now that we are nearing the end of an unprecedented year, many people are likely to celebrate on Thursday evening in the best possible way, allowing their joy to flow in abundance, while also being aware that many people have experienced the loss of loved ones due to the deadly virus.
On Thursday evening the food on the table in Chinese homes all over the country will be as varied as possible, the culinary array each year indicating that a milestone has been reached, one that is worthy of collective rejoicing. In rural areas the sound of firecrackers will fill the air as people embrace another tradition that seeks to banish any bad luck that might be in the area, the deafening sound signifying joy as much as anything else, the practice having only recently been banned in the cities due to safety concerns.
Among the many kinds of food on the table, there is usually fish and dumplings. The presence of these two dishes is attributed to the similarity of their names with other words in the Chinese language. Yu, the word for fish, coincides with the sound of the word for surplus, this being the preferred way to reach the end of the year in terms of available resources. Dumplings find their way to the table because the sound jiao matches with the Chinese word for communication, emphasizing the hope that members of the family are relating well with each other. A family in which there are healthy relationships and where there is some surplus of resources at the end of the year is seen as a family that is experiencing blessings.
While the Christian population of China is quite small, it is deeply meaningful that families all over the country celebrate the new year by gathering at a table for a meal of celebration in which good relationships are understood as being so important. 2,000 years ago Jesus often shared food with people at a table, some of those at table being the tax collectors and sinners. The experience of sharing a meal at the same table with Jesus allowed people the opportunity to realize that he was filled with compassion for them, an experience that then transformed their lives, whether that be Zacchaeus or the many others who ate with Jesus. Through the experience of eating with him, they came to know the depths of his mercy and became free of their burdens so that they were transformed to the core of their beings, literally having the opportunity to begin life again. At the Last Supper Jesus encouraged his followers to continue gathering in prayer at one table for a meal that would recall his presence among them, an experience that remains central to keeping the memory of Jesus alive today, a crucial part of our efforts to live as he lived.
With hundreds of millions of Chinese people gathering on Thursday evening to welcome the Year of the Ox, the fish and the dumplings on the table will be shared as the events of an unprecedented year are remembered. This year’s meal will be seen as special by families, a meal that signifies a new beginning as the difficulties of the past are left behind, a time when the food on the table has the opportunity to transform their hearts and move them to a place where they live in unity once again.
Hopefully the same opportunities for sharing meals with family and friends will soon emerge for people in the rest of the world.