Almost without exception, every holiday, especially ones only celebrated in certain parts of the world, have specific foods associated with them. American Thanksgivings feature roast turkey, Greeks prepare lamb for Christmas, and saffron buns are baked for St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden. Chinese holidays are no exception, with the Dragon Boat Festival’s steamed rice dumplings and Mid-Autumn Festival moon cakes. So, what about the Double Ninth Festival (重阳节 chóng yáng jié )?
There are two important focuses of the Double Ninth Festival: respecting the elderly and climbing high to avoid disasters. The words for both “high” (高) and “cake” (糕) in Chinese are pronounced “gāo”, and so Chongyang Flower Cakes (重阳花糕 chóng yáng huā gāo) have become a popular holiday food.
Generally people will try to climb mountains or hills, or at least spend some time at an altitude that’s higher than normal for the holiday, but where there are no mountains they find ways to symbolize the acknowledge the practice, like eating something that is homophonous with the idea – thus people are still able to remove themselves from bad luck by still partaking in the tradition of “gāo”.
Chong Yang cakes are often presented with colorful paper and bamboo sticks. The traditional versions are small and not overwhelming, meant to be enjoyed more as a snack rather than a main part of a meal.
chóng yáng jié kě yǐ chī yī xiē huā gāo.
重 阳 节 可以 吃 一 些 花 糕。
You can eat some flower cakes on the Double Ninth Festival.
chóng yáng jié yǒu dēng gāo de xí sú.
重 阳 节 有 登 高 的 习 俗。
There is a custom of climbing high on the Double Ninth Festival.
wǒ xiǎng mǎi yì jīn chóng yáng huā gāo.
我 想 买 一 斤 重 阳 花 糕。
I want to buy half a kilo of Chongyang Flower Cake.
During the Double Ninth Festival it’s customary to drink chrysanthemum wine. The reasoning behind the tradition also has to do with more homophones, but it’s a little more complicated than “gāo” (high) and “gāo” (cake).
The Chinese name of the Double Ninth Festival is “chóng yáng jié”, but it is also known as the “Double Ninth” because it is observed on the 9th day of the 9th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. “Double nine” in Chinese can be said as “九九 (jiǔ jiǔ)”, which happens to be homophonous with an expression meaning “very long time” or “forever” – 久久 (jiǔ jiǔ). Following so far?
In ancient times, chrysanthemum wine was specially brewed during the Chongyang Festival for the following year. On the 9th day of the 9th month, people picked the first blooming chrysanthemums and a bit of green branches and leaves, mixed them with grain used to make alcohol, and put them together to brew for the 9th day of the 9th month of the following year. It was thought drinking this kind of alcohol could prolong one’s life, and do you remember the word for “very long time”?
That’s right – it’s “jiǔ jiǔ”! And, as you may know, the Chinese word for “alcohol” or “wine” is “酒 (jiǔ)”. So, in order to live for a very long time, Chinese people drink this traditional chrysanthemum wine on the Double Ninth Festival – or, in order to live “jiǔ jiǔ (久久)”, Chinese people drink chrysanthemum “jiǔ (酒)” on “jiǔ jiǔ (九九)”. Feel free to take a moment to let that sink in.
jú huā jiǔ yǒu hěn hǎo de yǎng shēng zuò yòng.
菊 花 酒 有 很 好 的 养 生 作 用。
Chrysanthemum wine has a good effect on one’s health.
jú huā kě yǐ zuò jú huā chá，jú huā jiǔ，jú huā gāo.
菊 花 可 以 做 菊 花 茶， 菊 花 酒，菊 花 糕。
Chrysanthemum can be used to make chrysanthemum tea, chrysanthemum wine, and chrysanthemum cake.
wǒ xiǎng mǎi yì bāo jú huā chá.
我 想 买 一 包 菊 花 茶。
I want to buy a packet of chrysanthemum tea.
There is also a custom of eating mutton noodles on the Double Ninth Festival. The word for “sheep” in Chinese is homophonous with “yáng (羊)” (the same yang of “Chong Yang Jie”, the Chinese name of the Double Ninth Festival). So that’s why mutton is the meat of choice, but what about noodles? Is it just because Chinese people love to eat noodles?
Well, that certainly helps, but this specific type of noodle is prescribed as the starch of choice because of another homophonic pair – “bái (白)” meaning “white”, and “bǎi” (百), meaning “one hundred”. The number one hundred may seem unrelated to the holiday, but if you subtract 1 from 100, you get 99, the holiday’s most significant number! That’s how we end up with wheat noodles and mutton on the Double Ninth Festival, in addition to the fact that the autumn is when sheep start to fatten up, and lamb meat is thought to warm and replenish the body according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.
wǒ xiǎng yào yì wǎn yáng ròu miàn.
我 想 要 一 碗 羊 肉 面。
I want a bowl of mutton noodles.
yáng ròu miàn hěn hǎo chī.
羊 肉 面 很 好 吃。
Lamb noodles are delicious.
nǐ chī guò yáng ròu miàn ma？
你 吃 过 羊 肉 面 吗？
Have you eaten lamb noodles?
The Double Ninth Festival is also a holiday to honor the elderly and spend time with family, as many Chinese holidays are. This is an occasion to get together to have a warm reunion dinner, one replete with foods specific to different parts of China or different family traditions, like chestnut cake, steamed crab, brown sugar glutinous rice cake, and radish soup. Which of the Chongyang Festival delicacies that you learned about today do you most want to try? Let us know in the comments below!