If you’ve been living in China the last couple days, you might be wondering why you suddenly have to yell in your own apartment just to be heard… again. Last month you had to yell because of the Spring Festival fireworks, but those are long over. This time, it’s due to the ancient Chinese custom of using … wait for it … jackhammers to knock all the plaster and tiles off their concrete apartment walls and floors and re-plastering before moving in. You can’t move into a new apartment without first gutting it completely by taking jackhammers and drills to the concrete from 8am-7pm for several
It’s called 装修, or “renovation with Chinese characteristics.”
It’s bad luck to do this kind of thing (动土) during the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar — actually it’s bad luck/taboo (禁忌) to do a lot of things during the first lunar month, like get your hair cut — but three days ago the second Chinese lunar month began. The dragon has awakened from its winter rest and raised its head (龙抬头，on the second day of the second lunar month 二月初二); the insects are becoming active and the spring rains will fall (dragons are in charge of insects and rain). That means — among other things connected to interesting cultural traditions that I’ll mention in another post if I get time — it’s zhuāngxiū time! The pile in the picture above is outside our stairwell and was extracted from the apartment directly above ours via jackhammer.
Living with the occasional 装修 is part of life in a Chinese apartment building, and it’s normally not that big a deal. This time of year there’s a lot of 装修ing going on, but it’s usually tolerable. From where I’m sitting I can pick out of the soundscape four different apartments all running jackhammers and drills. Three of them are far enough away — in another part of the building or in the building opposite — that they just sound like noisy traffic outside. But one of them is in the apartment directly above us; I think their entire apartment must be directly above our toddler’s room. It’s driving her crazy, and that’s driving us crazy.
Our daughter loved the firecrackers, but she hates the jackhammers. Every time they start cries and buries her head in one of our shoulders. There is no way she’s taking either of her two regular daily naps, or doing anything else. And since it’s almost constant for hours on end, it means all she does is cry and want to be cuddled. Forget playing, or getting anything done. I’m writing this during the workers’ lunch break, because it’s the only time she can take a nap. She’ll wake up when they start work again around 1:30, and we’ll feed her and escape to a park for the afternoon. She’ll be tired and cranky, but better in the park than next to a zhuāngxiū!
We took her up there yesterday to meet the workers and see what was going on (the workers were really friendly), hoping that she’d be less scared if she could see it. Didn’t work. I pity Jessica tomorrow — she gets to deal with her single-handedly while I’m at work! I gotta run — she just woke up with a startled shriek, practically jumping out of her crib. Maybe if we play Raffi at high volume it will distract her…
P.S. — Other Dragon Raising Its Head traditions
We had Chinese class this morning, and my teacher was telling me all about the second day of the second lunar month (二月初二), called 龙抬头, or “Dragon raises (its) head.” This day, which was two days ago, marks the beginning of spring activity and spring rains; no need to hibernate anymore, the weather is warming up and it’s time to get to work. People call dumplings “dragon ears” (龙耳) and noodles “dragon whiskers” (龙须).
The most obvious change you see, aside from the sudden appearance of jackhammers at work in neighbouring apartments, is that everyone suddenly goes and gets a hair cut (剃龙头). There’re line-ups in the barber shops because it’s bad luck to cut your hair during the first lunar month; if you do your uncle will die. At least, that’s what people tell you if you ask. There are actually a lot of taboos (禁忌) to avoid during the first month of the lunar calendar. Our Chinese teacher this morning explained the hair cutting taboo this way.
When the (foreign) Qing dynasty took power from (Han) Ming dynasty around the middle of the 17th century, they made the Han Chinese grow their hair in a long queue and shave the front of their heads as a sign of subjugation to their foreign rulers. Anti-Qing literati greatly resented this, and taught the common people that they can’t shave the front of their heads in the first lunar month because that would make your uncle die — 死舅舅 (sǐ jiùjiu) — and that sounds like 思旧 (sī jiù), which means “miss the former” or “cherish the memory of the past.” The peasants turned it into a popular custom/superstition without realizing its original meaning, because that’s just what peasants do.
The other explanation is that there’s a saying, “Start at the head” (从头开始), meaning to start things in the right place, with the idea that everything starts at and flows from the head. So at the start of the new year’s activity, it’s good to take care of your head first.
Why are dragons raising their heads now?
The legend behind the dragon raising its head is connected to China’s ancient agrarian society. The Heavenly Emperor was unhappy because China had a female emperor, so he said unless he looks down and sees the earth covered in yellow flowers (I don’t know why), he won’t allow the dragons to make it rain. But one dragon disobeyed and made it rain, so the Heavenly Emperor locked him up. So the people all made yellow things to eat, like scrambled eggs, and the emperor looked down and saw all the yellow, and so allowed the dragons to make it rain. Or something like that. One variation was that the imprisoned dragon’s mother looked up and saw her son and cried, and I think her tears had something to do with the rain?
My teacher was telling me all this this morning, yelling it at me across the table, actually, because of all the jackhammering going on right above us, so I forget the details. Does anyone know the full story?
P.P.S. — Happy Women’s Day
Today is “International Women’s Day”, aka “three-eight” (三八) in Chinese because it falls on March 8. Now, because these numbers are associated with womenkind, “three-eight” is more often used as a derogatory, sexist adjective for people, usually but not necessarily women, who are woman-ish in the sense of being gossipy, nosy busybodies with nothing to do except cause problems by sticking their noses into other people’s business and running their mouths. Happy International Women’s Day!