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Arcane Chinese Holiday Honors Integrity Before Personal Gain


This is a holiday of sorts in China. It is Cold Food Day, which honors a hermit who lived some 2,600 years ago. It's observed just the way it sounds - no fires, no cooking. Cold Food Day used to be observed widely but today few Chinese know about it and even fewer observe it, except on and around the mountain where the hermit lived. Which is exactly where NPR's Anthony Kuhn went.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Members of China's Taoist religion hold a ceremony to mark Cold Food Day. It honors Jie Zhitui, who lived here on Mt. Mian in northern China's Shanxi Province. Taoist Wen Shiquan says that followers of several religions venerate Jie Zhitui as a sort of saint.

WEN SHIQUAN: (through translator) This temple combines Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. We believe that Jie Zhitui embodies a sort of spiritual energy, so we worship him and keep a place for him in our temple.

KUHN: Jie Zhitui served as an advisor to Chong'er, a prince in the state of Jin. Jin was one of a patchwork of small states that made up China in the 7th century BC. A civil war forced the prince into exile, and Jie Zhitui followed him. Nearly two decades later, Chong'er returned and became the ruler of Jin. He rewarded his followers with money, land and official jobs.

Jie Zhitui didn't speak up and was overlooked. Zhang Bo, folk customs expert at Beijing Union University, explains.

ZHANG BO: (through translator) He differed with other people about why his rule succeeded. Others felt it was because of their efforts. He believed it was heaven's will.

KUHN: So Jie Zhitui chose the life of a hermit on Mt. Mian, where he took care of his elderly mother. Chong'er's men set fires on Mt. Mian to drive him out of hiding and then reward him. But Jie and his mother were burned to death. Out of remorse, Chong'er declared Cold Food Day, during which no fires were to be lit. Zhang Bo says that people still revere Jie Zhitui because he embodies Confucian virtues.

BO: (through translator) He was a loyal minister to his ruler and a filial son to his mother. He was a man of high morals who sought no reward for his contributions.

KUHN: Confucianism says that rulers have an obligation to be ethical and look out for the people's welfare, and Jie Zhitui never let his ruler forget that. Cold Food Day was celebrated for centuries in China, Korea and Vietnam. But about 800 years ago it began to be overshadowed by the more popular Tomb Sweeping Festival, which begins the day after.

Historian Hou Qingbai is an expert on Cold Food Day. He says that the holiday's original meaning is getting lost in the rush to profit from it.

HOU QINGBAI: (through translator) Even the religious observances are now full of commercial stuff, and they've invested in and developed the mountain in order to attract lots of tourists and make money.


KUHN: Back on Mt. Mian, a young tour guide named Sun Xiaoting says that Jie Zhitui's values seem out of step with today's China.

SUN XIAOTING: (through translator) Young folks these days are pretty focused on wealth and status. They seek ease and comfort. I suppose if it were me, I'd probably ask for a reward.

KUHN: Cold Food Day is an introspective sort of holiday. So while you're munching on your cereal or salad, think of Jie Zhitui, whose uncompromising integrity was rewarded with a nasty death and a fading legacy. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.


INSKEEP: I guess it's cold cereal for breakfast. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.