Don't Be a Fool, Eat Your Gruel: The Story Behind Eating Porridge for Laba Festival, Jan 5
Some people will do anything for a free meal, even if that means waiting in line outside in Beijing in the middle of January for nothing more than a bowl of thin 粥 zhōu, or porridge. And yet tomorrow thousands of Beijingers will line up at temples throughout the city to do just that in honor of the Festival of Laba.
Laba (腊八) is celebrated annually on the 8th (bā) of the 12th lunar month (là) which this year falls on January 5.
While standing out in the cold for a bowl of gruel might not be everybody’s favorite way to spend a Thursday morning, for many Beijing residents – and even a few expatriates – it’s a way to reconnect with the city’s past.
The festival is something of a mash-up holiday, along the lines of Christmas/Saturnalia, Halloween/Samhain, or St. Patrick’s/Throw-up-cheap-green-beer-on-your-shoes Day.
Traditionally, the last month of the calendar was a time to honor the ancestors and pray for health, a good harvest, and prosperity in the coming year. Origin stories for the use of porridge as part of the festival vary. One popular account suggests that the first Laba porridge was made from the orts and leavings an unfortunate woman was able to beg from her neighbors after her unfilial son booted her from their family home.
As is the case with many holidays around the world, a new religion appropriated and blended existing practices to create new meanings for old traditions. With the expansion of Buddhism in China, this day took on a fresh significance – as a celebration of the date on which Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, achieved enlightenment.
In this new incarnation, Laba porridge came to symbolize the charity of a poor shepherd girl who encountered the Buddha in his darkest hour and offered him porridge as sustenance to fuel his final push toward enlightenment.
Another version, which also blends Buddhism with earlier traditions, claims the porridge originates with Guanyin, a popular deity of mercy. On the day she left her family to become a nun, Guanyin made a special porridge for her father to nourish him after her departure.
In any case, by the Song era (960-1279), the giving of food, especially porridge, had become a common practice in China’s cities as a way for the more fortunate to demonstrate their charity and wealth by giving food and alms to the poor. Temples opened their gates and offered free bowls of porridge to any who would ask.
Today, the tradition continues. Many temples – including the Lama Temple – will be serving Laba porridge. It’s not great gruel and consists of a watered-down version of “Eight Treasures” porridge in which beans and other grains are mixed into the mush, but it does come with a side of spiritual enlightenment, and the price is right.
For those wanting a more secular experience, several restaurants and eateries will offer their version of the porridge tomorrow. A popular choice is Huguosi Snacks (护国寺小吃 Hùguósì Xiǎochī) which is planning on serving over 60,000 bowls of their particular Laba porridge over the next few days.
Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing. He maintains the site Jottings from the Granite Studio and is co-host of the Chinese history and culture podcast Barbarians at the Gate. You can follow him on Twitter @granitestudio.