XIAOSHU, or Slight Heat, marks the arrival of midsummer with high temperatures in most Chinese regions. But still it is not the hottest period of the year yet.
Xiaoshu usually occurs on July 7-8 when the sun’s elliptical longitude reaches 105 degrees. This year it will arrive next Friday.
A Chinese proverb describes the days after Slight Heat as the “three periods of waitings” — waiting for warm wind to occupy, waiting for crickets to rest at house corners to avoid heat, and waiting for eagles to fly high to avoid hot air on the ground.
With xiaoshu’s arrival, the plum rain season nears its end in the reaches of Huaihe and Yangtze rivers. Most regions in north China will enter the thunder rain season, while weather in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River often features high temperatures and limited rains. There are cases of “reversed plum rain” with frequent thunderstorms in the region.
The thunder rains usually benefit farmers who grow rice, but is not welcome by those who grow other crops like cotton and soybeans.
With high temperatures and long daytime, a tradition of shai fu — exposing stored stuff in strong sunshine — is practiced in many parts of China. Clothes, books and paintings are among the common things that are stored away for the winter but are now brought out to prevent them from mold and rotting.
Chess game, fishing, swimming and keeping crickets or fireflies are popular entertainments for children around the day. Blooming jasmine flowers are widely used to perfume rooms for its pleasant fragrance.
Protection against pathogenic summer heat is an important task for people to keep healthy after Slight Heat, especially for the elderly, weak and babies.
Keeping a relatively plain diet, sufficient sleep and avoiding long exposure to sun during midday are basic rules. Heat-dispelling herbal soups with ingredients like green bean, lily’s root and lotus roots are also helpful.
Some people prefer striping to the waist in midsummer. Yet, doctors note that it is not helpful as the air temperature is close to or even higher than the body temperature. With the air around over 37 degrees Celsius, the exposed skin may absorb rather than radiate heat from the environment. Wearing light clothes helps protect people from the heat and strong ultraviolet rays in the season.
Just as the tradition of eating dumplings during the Winter Solstice, and cold noodles during the Summer Solstice, there is a must-try dish for Slight Heat as well — ricefield eel, which enters its most nutritious and tasty season.
It is said that having eels around Slight Heat is as helpful to the health as ginseng.
The eels with high protein, vitamin and mineral substances is seen as a “warm” (yang) food in TCM concept that helps to reinforce energy, benefit liver and spleen, dispel pathogenic wind and dampness and strengthen bones and tendons.
Eating eels around Slight Heat also helps in reducing cholesterol, prevent arteriosclerosis and improve digestion. It is also helpful in preventing relapse of chronic bronchitis, asthma and rheumatic arthritis.
The tradition of eating eels on Slight Heat goes back to the legend of Hua Tuo (AD 145-208), the miracle-working doctor in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). Hua was imprisoned and sentenced to death. The guard who respected Hua’s healing skills promised to help deliver his medical books. However, information leaked, the guard was killed and the books were burnt. The ashes of the book flew to the fields and were eaten by eels. Hence, an eel is considered a magically healing food.
There are also other diet traditions that are followed in some regions today.
Eating mutton in summer is a custom in south Shandong Province and north Jiangsu Province. Young goats that eat fresh grass in spring and early summer taste especially good in summer. A popular saying suggests that a bowl of mutton soup in hot summer, keeps doctors at bay.
New rice or wheat
Eating newly collected rice or wheat together with seasonal fruits and vegetables on Slight Heat is common among rural households, a sign of a good harvest.
Dishes made of new rice are offered to the gods and ancestors.
Fried wheat flour mixed with water and brown sugar is a common snack on Slight Heat. It reportedly protects people from pathogenic summer heat and prevents diarrhea. Various flour or rice-made snacks like noodles, dumplings and pancakes are popular on this day.