Chinese winter solstice

21Dec10

While today is ‘Winter Solstice’, the year’s shortest day, in China, 冬至 dongzhi, the ‘arrival of winter’, is on December 22 this year. The arrival of winter or dongzhi has always been an important day in the Chinese calendar, because it was the day the Emperor went for the most sacred ceremony to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

The emperor would fast for three days (although fasting didn’t actually mean he stopped eating, he just refrained from eating meat and drinking spirits), and then at sunrise of the morning of dongzhi he would perform a sacred ritual at the Altar of Heaven, including prayers and ritual sacrifices. In full imperial costume, he would climb the impressive three-tiered white marble platform at the Temple of Heaven before sunrise and kneel to pray for auspiciousness in the year to come.

Instead of having a western advent calendar, in which one has to open up a little window each day, ending on the Day of Christmas, the Chinese have a kind of chart known as the 九九消寒图 jiujiu xiao han tu, ‘Chart to Pass the Cold’. This chart, which has a time span of 81 days (9×9, a magic number) starts to be crossed off at Dongzhi, the winter solstice. When the 81 days have passed it is well into March, at the beginning of spring.

There are several styles in this type of ‘passing the cold’ charts, the most common one with Chinese characters. It consists of nine characters, each counting 9 strokes, making up a fitting sentence: ‘庭前垂柳珍重待春风‘,meaning “the courtyard’s droopy weeping willows await the breeze of spring”.
Another second chart of this type depicts a peach blossom branch with 81 white petals. Every day after applying their makeup, Chinese beauties could dapple the chart with their leftover rouge and color one peach blossom petal, in this way counting down until the beginning of spring. A third chart is only made up of 81 circles, strongly resembling Chinese ancient coins, divided into 5 segments each, made by drawing a square inside the circle. In these circles one can note down the weather conditions of that particular day. Coloring the upper segment means a cloudy day; the lower segment means a bright day; left side means a windy day; right side means a rainy day, and the center means that day was a snowy day.

This is a fun way to scribble one’s way out of the boring winter darkness and slowly approach the lighter days and the beginning of spring… Would you like to join me ? I have copied a set of passing-the-cold charts which I found on the web in a word document, which you can download and then print out your favorite. I myself will fill in the character one, one stroke for each day, but you can choose the flowers or the little coins too if you like those best. Wouldn’t that be fun?

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2 Responses to “Chinese winter solstice”

  1. I had to stop by your blog after seeing your cute photo over at toemail!

  2. 2 w

    Thank you for the background information. Seems 風 should be used instead 风 because it has 9 strokes.


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