What is the Dongzhi Festival?

Photograph of tangyuan

The Dongzhi Festival is celebrated in China on the shortest day of every year – also known as Winter Solstice. Dongzhi translates to “arrival of winter” or “winter’s extreme“, and like many cultures around the world, Dongzhi celebrates the Winter Solstice and the hopes for Spring to bring longer days. It is usually considered a very important festival, sometimes compared to Chinese New Year as it marks the upcoming celebration of Chinese New Year and Spring.

The Origins of Dongzhi

Dongzhi dates back over 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty (202-220 AD). At the time it was deeply rooted in the ancient yin and yang philosophy, representing harmony and balance in the universe. Winter, with its cold darkness, is thought of as negative yin energy, while the Dongzhi festival celebrates the coming of yang energy which symbolises light and warmth. This was especially important during the Han Dynasty when seasonal survival was essential to all people; the Winter Solstice indicated the coming of easier living conditions and longer days. 

Photograph of Chinese temple

How is Dongzhi celebrated?

Each region of China has varied traditions and ways of celebrating Dongzhi. However, they all centre on the hopes and joys that Spring will bring, as well as finding balance in the dark and dismal winter. During the Han Dynasty families would gather and reunite at temples, often expecting those who had left the region to return for the celebrations, and make offerings to Heaven and their ancestors.

In the present day, Northern China generally celebrates with dumplings and gatherings of family and friends, whilst southern China celebrates with tangyuan (glutinous rice balls) and offerings for their ancestors. 

The Nines of Winter

The saying of the Nines of Winter (Shu Jiu) is a folklore tradition that believed there were 9 sets of 9 (81 days) days between the Winter Solstice and Spring. The saying translates roughly as:

“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.”

Photograph of dumplings
Photograph of tangyuan

Dongzhi traditional food

Food is very important to the Dongzhi festival; the foods interlink into the yin and yang concept by using positive yang concepts when creating dishes, warming the body and soul. This is why food across China forms an integral part of the Dongzhi celebration; while there are many dishes savoured on Dongzhi, there are two main dishes from North and South China.

The dumplings eaten in the North are filled with fatty meat, such as lamb, herbs and served warm, all of which contribute to positive yang energy to counteract the yin energy of Winter. The tradition of eating lamb dumplings began when Zhang Zhongjing realised many people were suffering from frostbite and the cold, so to help treat them he concocted a dumpling of lamb, cold-fighting herbs and dough. He then gifted them to the people, who copied these dumplings during the yearly festival. Dumplings are thought to help eliminate colds and maintain good health by people in many northern parts of China.

In Southern China, they also sometimes eat dumplings but much more commonly Dongzhi is celebrated with glutinous rice balls – tangyuan – which are made from rice flour and water , often stuffed with red bean paste, and served with syrup. Tangyuan symbolise family unity and prosperity, concepts very crucial for Dongzhi; families join together for the celebration of looking forwards to the prosperity Spring will bring. Not only does tangyuan have important symbolic significance, but their name is also similar to tángyuán which means reunion in Mandarin Chinese. 

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