Dongzhi (冬至) Celebrating Winter Holidays in China

by Joe

For many Americans, the fall months bring some of our happiest memories and traditional celebrations that we share with family and friends.  Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas follow one another in quick succession ensuring many moments of happiness as we celebrate our friendships and shared values.

Of course, this is also true in China, although the celebrations are as different from ours as our two cultures are unique from each other.  We are approaching the period of Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year), which normally occurs in China on either the 21st, 22nd or 23rd of December each year.

History of the Dongzhi Festival

China is a vast country composed of many different peoples, each of them has their own traditions.  On that day, the northern hemisphere has the shortest daytime and longest nighttime. After that, areas in this hemisphere have longer days and shorter nights.  This is the traditional time of year when fishermen and farmers prepare for colder months to come. 

“Dongzhi” means ‘the arrival of winter/ winter’s extreme’ and this festival is thought to be one of the most important festivals the Chinese celebrate.   Having its origins in the concept of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy, the winter solstice festival represents balance and harmony in life:  the yin qualities of darkness and cold reach their height of influence on the shortest day of the year, but they also mark a turning point for the coming of the light and warmth of yang.

In Northwestern China (Shaanxi Province), Winter Solstice was traditionally regarded as the starting point of a new year during the Zhou and Qin dynasties (1046 – 207 BC).  Festivals and ancestor worship still play important roles in this holiday. 

During the reign of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), the holiday grew in importance. It was important during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)  and Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) when the emperors officially proscribed it as a day to worship and sacrifice to their god and to the ancestors. It has also been called the Changzhi Festival or Yashui.

 

Traditional Foods Served During the Dongzhi Festival

Traditional dishes vary with the region: the north emphasizes different foods considered warming in traditional Chinese medicine because of their warming qualities or because they help ensure a healthy respiratory system

Pronounced tōngjyùn in Cantonese and tāngyuán in Mandarin and meaning “round balls in soup” has the same sound as a word that means “reunion”, “wholeness”, or “unity”.

In Southern China, sweet, sticky rice balls are served at this time of year. This dish is a great example of how the Chinese enjoy using homophones (words that sound like other words) to give each other good wishes or refer to desired qualities.  For instance, one winter solstice dish pronounced tōngjyùn in Cantonese and tāngyuán in Mandarin (汤圆) and meaning “round balls in soup” has the same sound as a word that means “reunion”, “wholeness”, or “unity” (团圆).   The round shape of the balls and the bowls in which they are served have also come to symbolize family togetherness.

 

Celebrating the Winter Solstice, a Chinese family shares a traditional Tibetan meal of Tsampa.

Another much loved food is Tsampa, a food that is considered integral to Tibetan culture.   It is  a hearty, nutty-tasting flour made from roasted barley and mixed by hand with butter tea, dried dri cheese (the dri is the female of the yak species) and sometimes sugar, to form a dough.   Along with Tsampa, people also enjoy mutton (rabbit), noodles or drink winter wine for celebration.

 

Folklore and history play an important role in Chinese cultural life and there is an old story about the dumplings served during this festival.  At the legend goes, Zhang Zhongjing was  a renowned medical scientist at the end of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220).  He’d been away from his village for some time and when he came home, he  found his fellow-townsman suffering from coldness and hunger.  More severely, many of them had terrible chilblains in the ears.  To relieve the suffering, On the Winter Festival, he cooked food named Jiao Er with a stuffing of medicine and other ingredients fending off the cold to feed these people, and they recovered soon.  The local saying, that one’s ears will be frozen if he doesn’t have dumplings on the Winter Solstice, is an echo of this historic moment. 

 

The Chinese also share various proverbs or sayings related to the weather during the Winter Solstice.  A few of these include:

·         The Nines of Winter (Shu Jiu 数九):  This is a common custom for the festival. It refers to the nine periods of nine days each following the Winter Solstice. After that, it becomes warmer and spring will be around the corner.  A familiar folk song reminds people about appropriate safety measures during this time of year; People cannot put their hands in cold air in the first and second nine days; walking on ice can be achieved in the third and fourth nine days; willows on the banks start to sprout in the fifth and sixth nine days; ices dissolve and water flows freely in the river in the seventh nine days; in the eighth nine days, wild geese fly back to northern areas, and for the following days, farm cattle start to work in the field.

·         Zhejiang 浙江 (An Eastern, coastal province of China): If it is fine on Winter Solstice, the first month of the lunar year will be rainy; it also works to the contrary.

·         Heilongjiang 黑龙江 (Northeastern China): If it is sunny on Winter Festival, the New Year will be rainy. If it is rainy during Mid-Autumn Festival, Winter Festival will be sunny.

·         Hunan 湖南 (South Central China) and Guangdong (Southern China): If it is cold on Winter Solstice, the New Year will be warm. On the contrary, if it is warm,  the New Year will be cold.

·         Shanxi 山西 (North Central China): If there is northwest wind on Winter Solstice, it will be dry for the next whole spring.

No matter how you and your family choose to celebrate the coming holidays here at home in America, the entire staff at Word4Asia wishes you a very warm, happy and healthy Holiday Season!

 

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