According to the traditional Chinese calendar, winter officially began on Nov. 7 this year. For residents of the country’s vast and frigid north, the day has long meant one thing: It’s time to stock up on baicai, the leafy green and yellow cabbages that for centuries have been a staple of winter diets in northern China.
To southerners such as myself, however, the onset of winter offers yet another chance to gawk at this peculiarly provincial yet resilient tradition. Seemingly every year, photos and videos of elderly northerners buying baicai by the cartload go viral on the Chinese internet. To people who grew up in the north, such images evoke nostalgia for a simpler time; those of us from the south, on the other hand, merely find them amusing.
In one widely shared video from this year, a vendor proudly reports that he sold 150,000 kilograms of baicai — a weight equivalent to approximately 20 full-grown African elephants — in just 11 days. His clients lend credibility to his account. One middle-aged woman tells the interviewer that she’s buying 50 kilograms for her and her husband to share, while a grandfatherly old man says he’s bought between 100 and 150 kilograms every winter four years in a row. One article from last year went so far as to liken this early November stock-up to the country’s “Double Eleven” shopping holiday — a kind of Black Friday for cabbages.
Like most southerners, these videos tend to leave me more perplexed than hungry. Curious why the sight of mountains of baicai stacked by the roadside is enough to make some of my northern friends so emotional, I asked one of them, a 27-year-old Beijing native, if she could explain to me what all the fuss was about. I was caught off guard by the way she waxed poetic about the vendors who used to park at the entrance to her hutong residential alleyway. Traditionally, the rule was to buy at least 25 kilograms of baicai per person — a stockpile large enough to last a family until spring.
Winters in northern China are typically cold and dry, and unlike in the south, residents of the region historically did not have access to much in the way of fresh vegetables after early November. Cabbage, which is both inexpensive and easy to store, was a natural solution to the problem. Indeed, baicai — which as recently as last winter sold for just 0.9 yuan ($0.13) per kilogram in Beijing — is so famous for being cheap that the phrase “baicai price” can be used as shorthand for any unreasonably good deal. Meanwhile, the cabbage’s thick foliage ensures that even if the outer layers go bad, the inner leaves will remain edible.
Cabbage hoarding is a tradition that dates back centuries — long enough to have acquired the approbation of the country’s literary elite despite its humble origins. One of the first to record the practice was the famous Ming Dynasty naturalist Li Shizhen, approximately 450 years ago. More recently, the well-known 20th-century Beijing writer Liang Shiqiu wrote fondly of the “vendors who would come out in early winter to sell cartloads of baicai along the street.” Even my father, who spent his university years in Beijing in the mid-1980s, shows a penchant for metaphor when discussing baicai season. As he tells it, in those days the cabbages were “piled high as hills,” though back then residents could only buy them with state-issued ration cards.
Baicai has even left its mark on the architecture of northern China. A traditional Beijing-style house usually comes equipped with a vegetable cellar, where a family can store enough baicai and scallions to last through the winter months. My Beijing-born friend, meanwhile, remembers playing hide-and-seek among chilly blocks of baicai when she was a child. Later, after her family moved into a more modern apartment building, they stored their baicai in the hallway, buying so much that it became a challenge just to reach their door.
Whatever its nostalgic value, however, I must admit that as a southerner, I don’t find the bland flavor and fibrous texture of baicai particularly appealing; nor am I the only one perplexed by the north’s continued fascination with cabbage. Wang Zengqi, a contemporary writer from my home province of Jiangsu in eastern China, once joked that, “Spending a year eating baicai is no way to treat your mouth.” He went on to estimate that if you stacked the baicai consumed by an average Beijinger over the course of their lives, it would reach higher than the White Pagoda, a famous 40-meter tower located in Beijing’s Beihai Park.
Yet northerners are vigorous defenders of their favorite vegetable. “Whenever my non-northern friends and I go out for Beijing hot pot, they make fun of me for always ordering a plate of baicai,” my friend told me. “They jokingly ask me why I can’t order more ‘high-grade’ vegetables, but baicai in Beijing hot pot reminds me of my childhood.”
A stewed baicai and tofu dish popular in northern China, Heilongjiang province, Jan. 6, 2013. Liu Zhaoming/VCG
If baicai has one strength — besides the more prosaic virtues of being cheap and durable — it would have to be its versatility. There is a popular saying in northern China: “Baicai is better than a hundred vegetables” — a pun on the character bai, which is a homophone with the Chinese word for “hundred.” Indeed, baicai can be cooked just about any way imaginable: It can be boiled, stewed with tofu for a healthy soup, braised with pork and bean noodles, pickled in a fashion reminiscent of Korean kimchi, or used as dumpling stuffing.
There are signs, however, that the tradition of storing a season’s worth of cabbages is finally on its last legs. It’s no coincidence that the viral videos mentioned above all feature older Chinese. Whereas once the practice of going to the market to buy large quantities of baicai was so entrenched that companies would let their employees take off work expressly to do so, today residents have access to better options, including widely used online grocery platforms that promise to deliver fresh vegetables to users’ doors all winter long.
I get a laugh out of the yearly deluge of baicai videos, but they also offer an important reminder: China is not homogenous, and Chinese culture is comprised of a vast and rich array of sometimes mutually unintelligible local cultures and customs. As a southerner, the gradual fading away of this “Double Eleven for cabbages” might not affect me personally, but cumulatively, the loss of so many cultural traditions in recent years is changing what it means to be Chinese in ways we have yet to fully comprehend.
So in honor of this folk holiday, perhaps I’ll take my Beijinger friend up on her offer of hot pot and baicai. Times change, and traditions along with them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get together and reminisce about the good old days — even if those days are little more than a faint glimmer on the horizon to China’s younger generations.
Editors: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A woman sets ‘baicai’ out to dry in the sun in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Oct. 24, 2018. Huang Jinkun/VCG)