January 12, 2011
As freezing temperatures swept China Tuesday, people gathered across the nation to eat porridge distributed by Buddhist monks in temples or cooked in their own homes to celebrate the traditional Laba Festival.
“Eating porridge is an old tradition on the Laba Festival, which delivers good prospects for the New Year,” said Wang Xiangzhong, 65, who was awaiting the service in a long queue outside the Guanghua Temple in downtown Beijing.
Laba literally means the eighth day of the 12th lunar month. The Laba Festival is regarded as a prelude to the Spring Festival, or Chinese Lunar New Year, the most important occasion of family reunion, which falls on Feb. 3 this year.
Chinese people began celebrating the Laba Festival before 221 B.C. — when Qinshihuang, the first Chinese emperor, united China — to pay respects to ancestors and gods as well as to pray for good harvests and happiness. But the tradition of eating porridge only began in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) with the spread of Buddhist practice.
The traditional recipe of porridge includes a mixture of different types of rice, millet, chestnuts, red jujubes, lotus seeds, red beans and other ingredients, including sugar.
Healthy eating concepts have influenced the old tradition.
“The pearl barley can help prevent hypertension, the chestnuts are good for the kidneys, and the beans and nuts containing ferrum elements are good for pregnant women,” said expectant father Yang Hongli, in the northwestern city of Xi’an.
In some stores in the northern city of Shijiazhuang, Laba porridge with different functions, including hemopoietic and other beneficial effects, have been developed.
In Shanghai, some Chinese herbal medicine stores are promoting new products for the Laba Festival and providing prescriptions for Laba porridge.
The Laba Festival is a significant occasion in Buddhism. Many temples have the tradition of offering porridge to the public to commemorate Buddha and deliver his blessings to both believers and non-believers.
Legend has it that when Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, fell unconscious from hunger and exhaustion during his journey to find virtue, he was saved by a passing shepherdess who fed him porridge.
The gesture saved Sakyamuni who went on to become Buddha on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month. To commemorate the sufferings of Sakyamuni, Buddhist followers eat porridge on the day.
“Years ago, the Laba porridge was only served to the poor to show the kindness of Buddhism,” 70-year-old Guo Qingsheng said while waiting for monks to deliver porridge at the Yonghe Lama Temple in Beijing.
“Now that our life has become better, offering porridge is not to help the poor, but to offer blessings,” he said.