Lunar New Year celebrations in China prompt the largest annual migration in the world, with millions of Chinese traveling back to their homes for epic family reunions. Nowhere is this coming-together of a community more evident than in the ancient mountain villages in the hills surrounding Songyang County, located in Zhejiang Province, southeastern China. This year, we visited Yangjiatang village, one of over 100 villages in Songyang county and considered to be one of the three key ancient cultural villages. The energizing half-hour hike up the mountains from Songyang city center offers a mesmerizing journey through time, through lush green tea plantations, mountain creeks, and ancient forests, to arrive at a settlement where time has stopped.
We met with the owner of Yangjiatang’s Wei Jun Farmhouse, Ms. Song Weijun, who shared with us her connection to the festivities, offering a glimpse into how her community embraces this significant occasion.
Towering 200 meters (about 660 ft) above Songyang city in the hills is the village of Yangjiatang, with ancient buildings featuring yellow mud walls and dark gray clay tile roofs. As the afternoon sun bathes the rooftops of these structures in its warm glow, the entire hillside undergoes a breathtaking metamorphosis, prompting the locals to call the village the “Golden Potala of Songyang”, comparing the view to the iconic Potala Palace complex in Lhasa. Once named Zhangjiaotang after the two intertwining “husband and wife” camphor (zhangshu) trees, the village was later renamed Yangjiatang, meaning Yang Family Village. The reason for the name change has been lost to time, as there are currently no residents with the Yang surname in this area. Most of the villagers actually share the surname Song, including our host, Ms. Song Wei Jun, who owns Wei Jun Farmhouse.
Annually, as the Lunar New Year approaches, the entire community, spanning those who have migrated for work elsewhere in China, embarks on a journey homeward. Once reunited, community members gather for a collective effort in crafting the cherished yellow rice cakes, a tradition that unfolds over two days with everyone pitching in. Creating yellow rice cakes involves a traditional process that begins with gathering branches from the mountains, which are then burned to produce ashes. Subsequently, these ashes are mixed with water, and polished round-grained rice is added until the mixture takes on a vibrant yellow hue. The now-yellow rice is then washed and steamed. The final part involves anywhere from eight to fifteen people mashing the steamed rice in a stone mortar with wooden pestles, with the session lasting up to two hours with ten-minute intervals, until the steamed rice turns into a rice cake dough. The dough is then cut into small rolls or round pieces and stored away until New Year’s Day.
A significant portion of the younger generation from the Songyang mountain villages has migrated to urban areas for work and residence. During the Lunar New Year, commonly known as the Spring Festival, the entire community reunites. The preparation of the yellow rice cake holds special significance as it becomes a moment of communal togetherness, carrying on the shared traditions that bridge the gap between the urban diaspora and their rural roots.
Another delicacy in this region for the Lunar New Year is the brown sugar rice cake (known as nian gao). Unlike the yellow rice cakes, the fruits of communal efforts, these are household affairs. While commercially produced versions are available throughout the year from stores, for the Lunar New Year, families make it a point to steam their own brown sugar rice cakes, each using their unique family recipe. This is why the locals say that the brown sugar rice cake in each family tastes different and unique. Unlike their northern counterparts, these southern rice cakes can be enjoyed with savory dishes and meats.
As the Lunar New Year celebration unfurls, Yangjiatang stands not only as a physical location but as a living testament to the harmonious intersection of tradition and modernity, uniting families and communities in a shared celebration of heritage and homecoming.
By Bilguun Munkhjargal
Produced by WildChina 碧山
Cinematography & Editing by Charles Zhu
Subtitles by Oreo Zeng, Qing Gu & Elena Shlykova
A special thanks to:
The owner of Wei Jun Farmhouse, Ms. Song Weijun
Location: Yangjiatang Village, Songyang County, Zhejiang Province, China