unfortunate results of appetite for ‘lucky’ moss

The desire around Chinese New Year to consume fàcài (髮菜 / 发菜), which is an edible, hairlike moss, has led to desertification in Inner Mongolia, according to an article in the South China Morning Post. The problem is rooted in that fàcài sounds like fācái (發財 / 发财), which is the verb “to get rich.”

Note that fàcài and fācái are not true homophones, so there’s no problem distinguishing them in Pinyin — though even without tone marks the difference would be made clear by context, relative frequency of use, and the fact that one is a noun and the other a verb. The name of this moss and “get rich” also sound similar in Cantonese. (In Taiwan, the pronunciation of the fa of fàcài is in third tone.)

The main association with Chinese New Year is the polite phrase gōngxǐ fācái (恭喜發財 / 恭喜发财), which is tossed around a lot this time of year. (In Cantonese, it’s “kunghei fatchoi,” spelled in lots of ways.) It’s a way of wishing that the person makes a lot of money in the coming year. Although it doesn’t mean “happy new year,” in can be used in most of the same circumstances as that phrase.

Guangzhou diners are still consuming the banned fa cai black moss, with restaurants and seafood shops cashing in on the belief that eating it gives an auspicious start to the Lunar New Year because its name is a homonym for “get rich.” The harvesting and export of the hair-like plant called fat choi in Cantonese was banned in 2000 to protect the environment. Fa cai grows in the thin arid soils of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Ningxia, Qinghai, and Gansu, and harvesting damages the environment because topsoil is raked loose, leading to soil erosion and desertification.

Staff at Guangzhou’s Ting Cheng Restaurant said fa cai with oysters was one auspicious dish on its menu. Seafood shops along Yide Road were also stocking the moss and asking customers what grade they wanted, leading some consumers to wonder whether some of the produce could be corn silk dyed to pass as fa cai.

While one shop owner acknowledged the ban, he said he was selling stock bought before it was implemented. “It’s not allowed to be harvested any more. My suppliers in Xinjiang are giving me stocks harvested before the ban,” he said.

Teacher Shu Chang said she paid 230 Yuan for 250 grams of fa cai. “I can’t really tell the real stuff from fake fa cai, but it must be real because it is expensive. If you soak it and the dye comes off, it must be fake,” she said.

Excessive harvesting has turned millions of hectares of pasture into desert. Before the ban, 40,000 sq. km. had been laid to waste in 20 years in Inner Mongolia.

I wanted to use a desert/dessert pun in the headline of this post. Facai, however, is used in soups and a few other types of dishes, not desserts. Oh well.

source: Auspicious moss stays on menus despite ban, South China Morning Post

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