For farming purposes, the ancient Chinese divided a year into 24 Solar Terms (节气, jiē qì) according to the position of the sun to reflect the seasonal cycle. ‘Lichun’ (立春) is the first Solar Term and it marks the starting of spring. It falls on Feb 4th this year.
In China, the folk tradition of sacrificing oxes on Lichun Day dates back to the Han Dynasty, 2,000 years ago. The ritual did not actually include the slaughter of oxes, but used clay sculptures. On the eve of the Lichun, a tall and strong young man will play the role of Mangshen, the God of the east, God of the spring and God of the grass and trees. He will beat the clay ox with a willow twig, surrounded by dancing groups of young men and women.
The ox sculpture was later replaced with a painting of an ox on yellow paper, and hung in homes to greet the Spring. Yellow paper was chosen because it represents the land, while the ox symbolizes farm work. The painting is called “spring ox”, and is also used as a calendar to mark the days for farm work.
On Lichun in north China, people traditionally eat radishes to help digestion and prevent illnesses. They call it ‘biting the Spring’.