This year Dongzhi Festival will be celebrated around the world on 21 December 2020. This very important festival marks Winter Solstice, and is inspired by the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony – the longer days following the solstice mean an increase in positive energy flowing in.

We’re happy to welcome back Ricefield volunteer Xiaochun who has written us a short blog introducing the history and customs of winter solstice in China.

Origins of Dongzhi Festival

This year in the Northern Hemisphere, winter solstice will occur on Monday 21 December. The winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night in all parts of the northern hemisphere; the further north, the shorter the day. Dongzhi Festival is one of the eight key festivals of the year. The ancient people of China developed a tradition of worshipping their ancestors on the winter solstice to show their filial piety and to remember their roots. However, due to regional differences in rituals and customs, the forms of ancestor worship are also different in different areas. Alongside the worshipping of ancestors, in some places people also worshipped the gods of heaven and earth.

The winter solstice is regarded as an important winter festival. In ancient times, people who drifted out of the country were expected to go home for the winter festival. There is a saying that ‘the winter solstice is as important as (Chinese) New Year’, which is widely circulated in some parts of southern China. As soon as the winter solstice arrives, the Chinese New Year is just around the corner, and so the ancients believed that Dongzhi Festival is no less important than the New Year. Nowadays, many places still maintain the traditional custom of offering sacrifices to heaven and ancestors during the winter solstice.

Customs in South China

Many places in southern China will celebrate the winter solstice, and many areas along the southern coast uphold the traditional custom of worshipping ancestors. Each family will have ancestor statues in the upper hall of their homes, set up offering tables, arrange incense burners, make offerings and so on. Alongside worshiping the ancestors, some places also worship the gods of the heavens and the land to pray for good weather and prosperity in the coming year.

Cantonese people eat roast meat and ginger rice during the winter solstice. The Hakka people believe that during the winter solstice the taste of water is the most mellow, so it has become a custom for the Hakka people to make wine in this period. From the late Ming and early Qing period until now, Hangzhou people will eat niangao (Chinese: 年糕) during the winter solstice; they will make three meals of niangao with different flavours. In Sichuan, it is the custom to eat mutton soup, as mutton offers the best nourishment in winter. In Hubei, Hunan, you must eat red bean glutinous rice during Dongzhi Festival.

In some parts of the south, it is more popular to eat rice balls, known as tangyuan (Chinese: 汤圆) which means reunion. Eating tangyuan on the winter solstice is a traditional custom, and it is most common in the Jiangnan region.

Bowl of tangyuan

Customs in North China

In northern China, there is a long-held custom of eating dumplings every winter solstice. According to the legend, the medical sage Zhang Zhongjing saw the people who were suffering from frozen weather and he used lamb, some cold-fighting medicinal materials and dough to make dumplings. These dumplings resembled ears, in honour of the frostbitten patients he treated. This medicine was called qu han jiao er tang (Chinese: 驱寒娇耳汤) and he gave it to the people to eat. Later, every winter solstice, people imitated this treatment and cooked their own dumpling soup. Most parts of the north eat dumplings on this day because the word for dumplings has its origins in “eliminating the cold”.