In traditional Chinese agrarian culture, the year was divided up into 24 solar terms, each one marking a different phase of religious life and farm work. The solstices and equinoxes were especially important in this system, as they signified the extremes of the seasons.
The winter solstice is known as Dongzhi (冬至) in Chinese, literally, the Extreme of Winter or the Coming of Winter. Chinese people have associated the solstice with certain foods and customs since around 2,000 years ago, although the day’s importance as a religious festival had been around for many generations before then. It was once considered the beginning of the new year.
Back in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), most Chinese lived in the northern part of the country. According to traditional Chinese medicine, mutton is a “hot” meat and therefore useful for staving off cold weather. It was said that the Chinese physician Zhang Zhongjing took pity on poor farmers suffering in the cold winter and offered them lamb dumplings to eat.
This began a northern Chinese tradition of eating lamb dumplings for Dongzhi, to the point where people say “eat your dumplings on Dongzhi if you don’t want your feet to freeze off.”
In southern China, where the winter climate is less severe, people eat tangyuan (湯圓), or boiled mochi-like treats. Like dumplings, they are a staple Chinese dish.
Dongzhi falls between Dec. 21 and Dec. 23 every year. In 2018, Dongzhi is on Dec. 22. During the Han Dynasty, officials and the emperor would mark the solstice by holding rituals, while the commoners had an imperially mandated — and well-deserved — day of rest.
The ‘Nines of Winter’
After Dongzhi, though the days continue to get colder, the length of the day increases, giving people hope in their efforts to survive the winter. To the Chinese, the darkness of Dongzhi symbolizes the qualities of Yin, while the forces of light, or Yang, steadily become stronger as the winter continues along its way to spring.
With climate being so important to daily daily and simple physical well-being, the Chinese paid great attention to the phases of winter. According to the Chinese solar terms, the winter after Dongzhi lasts for 81 days, and was popularly divided into nine “Nines.” An ancient poem colorfully illustrates the nine Nines:
So cold are the first and second Nines
That we do not dare hold out our hands.
During Nines three and four
Water freezes, on ice we go
In the fifth and sixth Nines are to be seen
On the far bank of the river, the willows green
The rivers thaw during the seventh Nine
In the eighth we welcome the wild geese,
Winter sees an end in the last Nine days,
When blossoms and flowers smile in spring.
Traditionally, the Chinese marked the Nines of winter by hanging up a painting of a plum tree adorned with 81 uncolored blossoms. Each day, one flower would be filled in with red, until every flower bloomed together with the new spring.