What’s the occasion? Dongzhi (冬至)
By Elaine Dunn
The longest night. The shortest day. The turning point. Call it what you will, Dongzhi (冬至 ) is the one day Chinese families all around the world still make a point of getting together for a family meal of meat dumplings (mainly in northern China) or tangyuans, glutinous rice balls. This year, Dongzhi falls on Dec. 21.
In Chinese culture, Dongzhi is the Winter (Solstice) Festival, a day that is almost as important as New Year Day.
“Dong (冬)” means winter and “zhi (至)” means arrive. At some ancient point of time, Winter Festival and New Year Day in China were one and the same. However, during the Han Dynasty under Emperor Wu (birth name Liu Che, 156 -87 B.C.) – one of the most prosperous periods in Chinese history – when the traditional Chinese calendar was adopted, Winter Festival and New Year Day became two different occasions.
Unlike most Chinese festivals that are based on the Chinese lunar calendar, Dongzhi is based on when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun. Therefore, it coincides with the western winter solstice. It also traces back to the Chinese concept of yin and yang, of balance and harmony. On Dongzhi, yin qualities of darkness and cold are at their strongest. After this celebration, it’s the turning point for light and warmth, an increase of positive flow of yang energy.
Old, abandoned customs
In ancient times, Dongzhi was a big deal: farm workers and fishermen stop work; soldiers in the field get R&R; emperors hold elaborate ancestral-worship ceremonies; common folks just gathered with their families. Since Dongzhi occurs when the harvest is finished and many farm hands would return to their families after having been away for many months, it is somewhat like Thanksgiving; harvested food is stored, and thanks are given for the bounty of the year.
An interesting practice that may be practiced during Dongzhi, especially for those who raise animals, involves a thorough cleaning of the areas where livestock are kept - a reward for the livestock. Others give household utensils an extra special cleaning as a gesture of thanks and respect for the utensils’ service throughout the year!
Some other old customs that have been abandoned include:
• giving of gifts, especially shoes to children
• hanging a painting of a plum tree with 81 barren blossoms – one for each day between winter solstice and the spring equinox – with a petal painted on each day to make a colorful painting when spring arrives
• hanging a scroll to be composed of nine nine-stroke characters to make up a spring couplet
Today, even though Dongzhi is no longer a formal holiday, Chinese families still gather to reconnect and, since food is always a crucial component of any Chinese celebration, eat a family meal! Some families may start the day at their favourite temple to make offerings to their deceased ancestors; others will just leave work early for a family dinner. However, depending on where you are, what is eaten may be quite different.
In northern China, to ward off the chill, the custom is to eat meat-filled dumplings cooked in broth. This tradition is said to have originated from the Han Dynasty when a kind-hearted doctor, Zhang Zhong-jing (张仲景), saw the poor in his community suffering from chilblains on their ears on a cold winter day. He ordered meat-filled dumplings that were shaped like ears to be served to them to keep them warm to prevent their ears from getting chilblains. In Henan Province, children are told that if they do not eat the ear-shaped dumplings on Dongzhi, they run the risk of their ears falling off in the freezing cold!
In southern China, families get together to make and eat a different kind of dumpling called tangyuans (湯圓, pronounced as tong-yuans). These are round balls made with glutinous rice flour. They may be sweet or savory, depending on one’s preference. They may also be plain or filled. Sweet ones may be filled with red bean paste, jujube paste, sesame paste, chopped walnuts or peanuts, or dried fruit, etc. Savoury tangyuans may be filled with chicken or pork. The tangyuans are then cooked in boiling water until they float, then dunked in cold water to prevent them from sticking, and then served in a hot brown sugar syrup for the sweet variety or in chicken broth for the savoury ones.
The round shape of the tangyuans symbolizes completeness and unity of the family. Each member of the family will get at least one large tangyuan and several smaller ones. The tangyuans may be white or pink, which is supposed to bring good luck and happiness. However, these days of mass-produced everything, one can find pre-mixed glutinous rice dough in the supermarkets in multicolor, including green and orange!
Taiwanese eat a lot of “tonic” foods during Dongzhi, such as mutton and ginger duck hot pots, abalone and chicken cooked with herbs such as ginseng and deer horn to” nourish the body” for the cold winter days ahead. The dessert of choice? Steamed nine-layer cakes in animal shapes are a big hit. And how are tangyuans used in Taiwan? Folks stick them on the back of doors, windows, under tables and chairs to ward off evil spirits!
Chinese in Singapore celebrate Dongzhi by eating tangyuans with the family and Malaysian Chinese choose to relax with friends and family over a simple meal.
So before the frenzy and commercialism of Christmas take over your household this December, plan a Dongzhi celebration to enjoy a relaxed family get-together and eat some dumplings!