PEKING — Consider the humble cabbage--a symbol both of a dreaded weather change and, now, of the changes taking place in Chinese urban life.
It is cabbage season in Peking once again. Each year, in late October and early November, the street corners of Peking are piled high with mountains of this durable vegetable, which has long reigned as the culinary staple of the long North China winter.
Here and elsewhere across North China, millions of people have traditionally stocked up on a full winter's supply of cabbages and stored them at home, where they are carefully turned, rotated, weeded out and selected in such a way that the toughest of them will last until May.
The cabbages, known here as bai cai or "white vegetable," are indeed whitish in color at the ends and elongated, as opposed to their green and round American cousins. Throughout the cold winter months, they are served in as many ways as inventive Chinese cooks can imagine. They are eaten on their own, in soup, with shredded meat or in dumplings. They are sauteed, pickled, boiled, shredded, sliced and pounded.
In the past, the task of storing cabbages has even commanded high-level political attention in China. Three years ago, when the thermometer suddenly plummeted in early November, Chen Yun, a member of the five-man standing committee of the Communist Party Politburo, warned Peking officials over the radio that they should protect the cabbages sitting on the city's streets. Peking Mayor Chen Xitong set an example by getting out and selling a few cabbages himself.
But now, the Chinese cabbage is in a bit of a slump. Over the last few years, Peking residents have not been buying cabbage in the same quantities as in the past. Even the official New China News Agency confessed a couple of years ago that the cabbage is "losing popularity."
For the past few Novembers, large numbers of cabbages have sat on the street corners unsold, forcing Chinese officials to slash the prices of the vegetables in order to get rid of them. A couple of years ago, so many cabbages were left out on the streets that "we just turned them into animal fodder," recalled Ding Lunzheng, the manager of one city-run vegetable company.
Many theories for the decline of the cabbage are being bandied about. Some say it is because more and more Chinese urban residents are living in high-rise buildings. Others blame it on increasing social mobility in China. Still others attribute it to changing tastes and the modernization of food preparation.
Glorious Autumn Ending
Whatever the reason, it is becoming increasingly clear that a younger generation of Chinese does not agree with that old saying: "A hundred vegetables aren't worth a single cabbage."
The arrival of the cabbages in Peking marks the meteorological transition from the glorious North China autumn to its particularly bleak winter.
For two full months, from late August until late October, North China enjoys one of the nicest stretches of weather on Earth. Day after day, skies are sunny, temperatures are in the high 70s or low 80s, and the air is balmy and light.
Objectively speaking, Peking's fall weather may not be any better than that of, say, Southern California or Hawaii or even Paris in the springtime. But compared to what comes before and after, that fall weather is a godsend.
In Peking, spring is usually a windblown disappointment. Gusts from the Gobi Desert churn up sand and dust. The warming temperatures serve only as a reminder of how little greenery there is in Peking. April is the cruelest month here.
Peking's summer is mediocre, too--better than summer in the American Southeast, not as nice as summer in New England.
But then comes the magnificent fall. Throughout the nights of September and October, Chinese lovers linger in parks and shoppers throng the nighttime markets, all seizing the opportunities for a few final weeks of warmth.
By late November, soon after the cabbages have been trucked into Peking, the skies will turn overcast, the temperatures frigid and the air crackly dry. The low-grade coal, which is burned here for fuel, will fill the air with haze and cover any snow that falls with soot.
The combination of cold, dirt and grayness makes Peking's winter one of the grimmest of any major city in the world. Until recently, at least, the 9 million residents of the Peking area have looked upon the cabbage as one of their main sources of sustenance through these winter months.
By American standards, the amount of cabbage consumed here is incredible. In recent years, the city has been distributing roughly 100 million pounds of cabbage each November. On peak weekends, about 2,000 people are employed by the city to sell cabbages on street corners. Each city resident is guaranteed a ration of at least 16 pounds of high-quality cabbage, at a price of roughly a penny a pound.