Meaning the “summit of the winter,” Dongzhi, or Winter Solstice is not necessarily the coldest period of time in winter, but it is definitely the most important of the 24 solar terms in Chinese lunar calendar.
Dongzhi is the 22nd solar term of a year, which begins on the day with the shortest daytime and the longest night. It was also the first settled solar term in the Chinese history.
The Chinese has an old saying “Dongzhi is as significant as the Spring Festival,” since dating back to the days before the Qin Dynasty (1046 BC — 207 BC), the ancient Chinese celebrated the day as the beginning of a new year.
Coldness: A keyword to define the period of time
Though the day of Dongzhi may not be that cold, it kicks off the period of time known in Chinese as “Shujiu Hantian,” believed to be the coldest 81 days that could be divided into nine units of “nine-days.”
The Chinese character “nine,” which has the same pronunciation with the word for “long,” is considered as the largest number in ancient China, and was bestowed with the meaning of “maximum” and “extreme.” The “Shujiu Hantian” is, therefore, the ancient Chinese people’s way of describing how long and harsh the winter could be.
The peak of the coldness usually comes at the third “nine-days,” known as the “Sanjiu” in Chinese. But when the ninth “nine-days” comes, the spring would be in full swing across most part of China.
A feast for the stomach: Dumplings or tangyuan?
The Winter Solstice might be the favorite for a gourmet.
For the ancient Chinese, celebrations of a significant festival could never be without a proper feast, especially for Dongzhi, which marks the end of the past year and the arrival of the new year.
Dumplings, one of the favorite food for many Chinese people living in the north, is an indispensable part of the table.
The tradition of eating dumplings was maintained for almost all the important festivals in China, such as the Lunar New Year’s Eve.
Mutton soup is also the best choice for many. A bowl of hot soup relished with chopped scallion would definitely drive away the chill.
However, whenever there are dumplings, there is the “Dumplings or Tangyuan” debate.
In the south, instead of dumplings, tangyuan, or glutinous rice dumplings is a must for many families. But traditions could be quite different even for neighboring provinces and cities.
For instance, in Anhui province, people eat noodles on the day, while in Zhejiang province, people cook eggs with longans and red dates.
In Jiangsu province, many families drink rice wine tinged with sweet-scented osmanthus, while in Jiangxi province, Maci or fried glutinous pudding is their best choice. In some cities and towns along Yangtze River, people also cook rice with azuki beans.
But whatever food they prefer, the dishes for the Winter Solstice dinner table must be nutritious, warming and beneficial for health.
Even though worshipping to the ancestors used to be the most important thing for the day, only a few areas in China still maintains the habit. In Guangdong province, people still hang up papers in front of their ancestors’ tombs, while in Taiwan, special nine-layer cakes would be made as offerings.
As the coldest days come, people may easily catch a cold or fell ill. It is recommended that regular schedules should be maintained and a little bit sports won’t hurt as well. But coldness is not frightening at all, after all, the spring won’t be too far away as well.