“When the handle of the Big Dipper points to the southeast, summer begins (斗指东南，维为立夏 dòu zhǐ dōngnán, wéi wéi lìxià),” says the ancient almanac. Observe the sky around midnight; if you are lucky enough to have a clear view (probably not applicable to those of us in Beijing), you will find the phenomenon described by the texts. Today is the day summer officially begins. “All plants grow bigger from this day on, hence the name Summer Begins (万物至此皆长大，故名立夏也 wànwù zhìcǐ jiē zhǎng dà, gù míng lìxià yě).”
What seems like a simple description actually revealed the origin of the Chinese character for summer: 夏 also meaning big. This intuitive point of view was cultivated in an agriculture society where the most important annual activities were all related to farming. As the 7th of the 24 solar terms, a traditional supplementary calendar used to guide agriculture activities, 立夏 is also celebrated as a festival in many regions across China today. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is also deemed as a critical time to attend to health with extra care.
The date of Summer Begins was determined as early as 239B.C. during the last years of the Warring States Period (475B.C.-221B.C.). Around that time, great importance was attached to the date. The emperor would dress in red (the color for summer) and lead the officials to the south suburban area of the capital to welcome summer, worship Yan Di (炎帝) and Zhu Rong (祝融)—the fire gods—and wish for a year of prosperity. Such grand ritual is gone now, but ordinary families around China still maintain various customs associated with this special day.
In Xiaoshan (萧山), Zhejiang Province, it is customary to eat black rice (乌米饭 wūmǐfàn), mash the leaves of the black rice tree (Vaccinium bracteatum Thunb), immerse the them in cold water for a while, and use the resulting liquid to cook glutinous rice (糯米 nuòmǐ). Finally, sprinkle sugar on the now black rice and it is ready to serve. Locals believe a bowl of the dark delicacy will prevent them from sunstroke as well as mosquito bites in high summer. In Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, locals eat three kinds of fresh seasonal foods to celebrate the day and call it “立夏见三新 (lìxià jiàn sān xīn)”. The three foods usually refer to cherry, greengage fresh off the branches and newly harvested wheat. Similarly, in Wuxi, fresh foods extend to include vegetables, fruits and seafood. Perhaps the most well known custom for kids on this day is the game “egg striking” (斗蛋 dòu dàn), which is still popular.
TCM suggests that special attention should be paid to the heart when spring makes the transition to summer. Since the power of yang begins to rise as summer arrives, the function of the heart (the most important organ dominated by yang) will also be improved. Nurturing your heart during this time will be especially beneficial in the long run. Recommended diets include protein-rich foods such as milk, bean products, chicken and lean meat. Vegetables, fruits and grain will also add to your vascular health.