PERSONAL NOTE: I decided to share my book with friends and students in mainland China. It costs too much to order a copy from USA. Enjoy it and share it with people you care and love. Peace, Steve, usa October 24. We are coming soon to the end of the book. Stephenehling@hotmail.com blog – https://getting2knowyou-china.com
– 376 –
One thing you can be sure of these days in modern China: any tourist place will always be jammed with tourists from different corners of the province and mainland China. Especially because this was the Spring Festival season, that would end officially on the 15th of the lunar month, the time of he Lantern Festival in mainland China.
And the tourists were there in droves in Yun Shui Yao Village. In 2006, a Chinese romantic movie was filmed in this location called The Knot, and it was translated into Chinese as Yun Shui Yao. It was submitted for Best Foreign Language Film at the 80th Academy Awards in USA. The village’s original name was Chang Jiao but renamed Yun Shui Yao Village because of the movie. It is a beautiful rural village along the river in the mountains, its picturesque scenery brings inspiration to many tourists and photographers and art students who would come to paint the rural bucolic scenery. Three of us and many tourists walked across a river flowing downstream to a mill in the village. One of the attractions in this village is the waterwheel house that was featured in the movie. There were vendors everywhere along the route selling all kinds of toys and local foods, boat rides, Monkey King characters who charge for photos, and tea houses.
Eventually we arrived at the Huai Yuan Lou after a long leisurely walk. This is one of the 46 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, described “as exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defensive organization [in a] harmonious relationship with their environment”. This tulou was built in 1905 in late Qing Dynasty. It is a four-story round earth building at 14.5 meters high with 136 rooms, with many doors, windows and ridgepoles decorated with exquisite paintings and carvings. The predecessors obviously believed happiness and fortunes could only come from diligence and this idea appeared in many plaques and couplets seen everywhere inside the tulou. It is said this “Huai Yuan Lou is rich in cultural atmosphere. It used to be the ancestral hall as well as a private school of the family.”
So what is tulou? The word means earthen buildings in Fujian Province in southeastern China. They are traditional homes built by Hakka people. The communal earthen buildings housed large families and sometimes multiple groups, protecting them from warlords and bandits. Tourists can choose to visit Nanjing Tulou, (the most recommended), Yongding Tulou, (the largest collection) and Hua’an Tulou (the least commercial). There are two architectural styles: round and square, or rectangular. The
– 377 –
round or famous ones are seen or visited by most tourists.
From a distance, they look like spaceships or reels or thick tires lying on their sides with colored walls, dark roofs and enormous hollow centers in the countryside. As protection from harm and threats, the walls were fashioned out of rammed earth, the technical term for compressed clay, limestone and sand that became hard as concrete when dried, capable of withstanding battering rams, cannon shots or flaming arrows. This kind of construction keeps the interior cool in summers and warm in winters. Inside the famous tulou, residents sell all kinds of crafts, paintings and photographs of Fujian Tulou, local-made cigarettes, tea and souvenirs.
The famous ones are like medieval castles, standing five stories high, around a light-filled open-air courtyard paved with lumpy cobblestones with usually a well or two and an ornate enclosure for the worship of ancestors. Each tulou is about 70 meters in diameter with 1.8-meter-thick high mud-brown walls, gun holes, tiny windows in the top stories (a reminder of the tulou’s original purpose as a fortress to keep out bad people), and just a single iron-plated wooden entrance door. Rules of conduct, like respecting the elders, taking care of waste, contributing to festivals, were posted inside the entrance.
By the end of our tour, I was exhausted and hungry and I invited Jacob and his best friend and the driver to a lunch at a restaurant not far from Jacob’s farm house. The first restaurant left its front door open but not for business. We found one that would be happy to serve us a decent meal in the next block. We could tell the owner or the cook what we wanted to eat: two vegetables, two meats, a soup, and steamed rice. I would say many people were not ready to return to a normal life during this Spring Festival holiday. Most college students had a one month vacation. The Spring Festival is the most important public holiday in China and will close with the Lantern Festival on January 15th of the lunar calendar. The restaurant owner and a helper were happy to cook for us, probably their first customers since the Spring Festival holidays. If I had a kitchen, I would have cooked the dishes myself: a simple regular meal with vegetables, soup and steamed rice. In the end, I paid the driver for his service and time with us the whole day visiting the Fujian Toulou.
Back at the farm house, I felt claustrophobic sleeping inside a mosquito net over a small bed for two people. Luckily, Jacob and I are not fat people but still I am used to sleeping in a big room with a king-size bed with plenty of room to stretch. The farm house was out in the countryside with many mosquitoes singing to us every night. After breakfast the next morning, Jacob and I decided to visit the hothouses where his parents grew winter cucumber. I would say it took us about 30 minutes or so to walk
– 378 –
to the farm. On one side of the highway are the village houses. On the other side of the highway are farms. Along the way to visit his parents and the cucumbers, along the farm road, there are a few storage buildings, with some farm machinery inside them but no sign of farm products for the markets or farm workers at work. Jacob’s parents were busy working and Jacob showed me the cucumber plants inside the hothouses. I quickly realized Jacob’s parents had competitors next door. There were other people growing the same winter cucumber.
Cucumbers love hot weather and plenty of water. Jacob’s parents grew the vining variety, which yield more fruit throughout the growing season. Vines grow on trellises, thus saving space and keeping the fruit clean (above the ground). Most people would tell you cucumbers grow fast and do not require a lot of care. I wonder if that is the reason why Jacob’s parents preferred growing cucumbers instead of raising more fish. I grew up on a farm and so I know a thing or two about raising crops and growing garden vegetables for home consumption. The cucumber plants looked green and healthy, to me, all standing tall and happy on sturdy trellises. Of course, Jacob’s mom could tell you the soil must be consistently moist because inconsistent moisture can cause oddly shaped or poor-tasting cucumbers. When watering the plants, always remember to keep the foliage dry to prevent leaf diseases. And, the mother said, if you see white, mildew-like patches on the leaves, apply fungicides immediately. Pests like aphids can colonize leaves and buds. Cucumber beetles love to chew holes in leaves and flowers and scar stems and fruits. If not cared for they can spread a disease that will cause the plants to wilt and die. She also said, to reduce spread of disease, avoid harvesting or handling the vines when leaves are wet.
So how to fertilize the plants? Very carefully apply liquid fertilizer directly to the soil around the plant stems or work into the soil around the plants granular, slow-release fertilizer. Either way is okay with her. I was curious if she used human waste (night soil) because many Chinese and Japanese farmers are known to use human waste, the cheapest known effective fertilizer available. She simply smiled. I did not smell any of it anywhere in the farms. I knew she did not use any human waste because we flushed the toilet in her farm house. I had seen in another farm house, years ago, where families in that village had constructed a special outhouse with a huge container at the bottom to collect human waste. And often farmers would empty it and use the human waste to fertilize their crops and vegetables. We wasted the human waste at Jacob’s farm house.
I also learned a thing or two about growing cucumbers from Jacob’s parents. She explained to me: What about the blooms or flowers? Male blooms would appear first, then drop off. Within a week or so, female flowers will appear with a small cucumber-
– 379 –
shaped swelling at the base that will become a cucumber. I heard some farmers might use “hand pollination” if the plants fail to produce any fruit. Check vines daily because the fruits can grow very fast. I was looking for the mature cucumbers and it was difficult to find them because of the thick vines and everything looked green to me.
Many were hidden behind the leaves right before your eyes. And I missed quite a few of them because I could not tell the difference between the forest and the trees. The rule of thumb about harvesting is harvest them when they are big enough to use. So how big is big? She said something very important to me: The vines will produce more fruits the more you harvest them. And oversized fruits not only taste slightly bitter but will prevent the plants from producing more. And of course everyone will tell you: use the cucumbers for best flavor after picking or harvesting.
I love the taste of cucumber in my American chicken salad. Usually, I would buy two or three regular cucumbers, cut them up into very thin slices, add some salt to them and let them sit for a few minutes, then rinse them with fresh water and squeeze out all the water. Keep it refrigerated in a plastic container and use them for a few days. By then they are soft and can taste flavorful with a few drops of soy sauce and sesame oil added to them. Jacob’s mom did not use any salt and she served fresh crispy cucumbers in soy sauce and sesame oil and they would taste refreshing with any fried foods on the table.
Americans know the benefits of eating cucumbers or drinking cucumber juice. According to Reference.com: “Because cucumbers are a great place to get B vitamins, they provide the body with a quick pick-up similar to drinking a coffee or soda, according to Natural News. Made up of 95 percent water, cucumbers help to keep the body hydrated and contain most of the vitamins the body needs throughout the day.
“Along with the health benefits, cucumbers have tangible results for lightening bad breath, according to Natural News. Pressing a slice on the roof of the mouth for 30 seconds causes the phytochemicals in the cucumber to kill the bacteria that cause bad breath in the mouth. Eating cucumber slices before going to bed at night prevents a hangover and consuming cucumbers daily prevents constipation.
“Cucumbers can be used as part of a skin and hair care routine, according to Natural News. The skin of a cucumber reduces inflammation caused by sunburn, and laying a slice over the eyes reduces puffiness. Made of sulfur and silicon, the skin of a cucumber also stimulates hair growth.”
– 380 –
And one final question: why is cucumber considered a fruit? According to Reference.com: “On a technical level, the difference between fruits and vegetables is fairly clear. Fruits grow from a plant’s flowers and contain seeds, and vegetables are the other parts of the plant. However in a culinary sense, there are plenty of fruits that are generally used as vegetables. These fruits include not only cucumbers but also tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, avocado and squash. These foods, while fruits by definition, are not nearly as sweet as fruits like oranges or peaches and fit in better with vegetables for culinary purposes.”
Life is a learning process and even cucumbers could teach me a thing or two about their benefits to our health. And from Jacob’s parents, I did learn a thing or two about how to grow cucumbers and how to prepare and serve tasty fresh crispy cucumbers, with sesame oil and drops of soya sauce.
This is China.