In the West, the general population usually equates the yin yang with balance, harmony and unfortunate ankle tattoos. However, his curvy black and white symbol has the honor of being a prominent figure in the Chinese Dongzhi Winter Solstice Festival.
What’s the yin yang/solstice connection? Well, balance and harmony are indeed a big part of it, but according to the Chinese the yin yang also represents the flow of energy, warmth and light. Each year when winter solstice rolls around (generally December 21 or 22, the shortest day of the year) the warm, positive energy -which had apparently turned cold, dark and lazy throughout the fall – revs back up again and sets its sights on spring. Put simply, winter solstice opens up the floodgates of happiness, joy, optimism and all those other fuzzy feelings.
How the locals do Dongzhi
Back in the day, the Dongzhi winter solstice festival literally brought the country to a halt. Soldiers were brought in from their posts, farmers and fishermen kicked up their boots and everyone indulged in some much needed post-harvest R&R. Emperors staged elaborate ancestral-honoring ceremonies, while the common folk simply used the break for spending time with family and friends, honoring the dearly departed and eating their weight in special Dong Zhi dishes.
Today, families still gather and food is still a crucial component of the celebration. Customary delicacies vary between regions, but the spirit remains the same. To stave off the chill in the snowy north, locals tuck into rich mutton and dog meat, while noodles are the popular choice in the heart of the country. However, southerners prefer tangyuan, a sweet soup brimming with colorful sesame or red bean-stuffed rice dumplings.
Give Spring a creative kick in the pants
One too-cool-to-not-mention Dongzhi tradition is the winter solstice painting. Families will often hang an unfinished watercolor of a plum tree on the wall complete with 81 barren blossoms – one for each day between the winter solstice and spring equinox. As each day passes, another petal is painted. When spring finally does arrive in all its blooming glory, the family has a colorful new painting to greet it.
Similar traditions follow the same pattern with a scroll and a nine-character spring poem. Each character contains nine strokes; do the math and it’s a genius way to beckon the spring (and apparently a great way to teach the kiddos their characters).
Celebrations across Asia
Although the Chinese have been celebrating the changing seasons for well over 2,500 years (since the famous Han Dynasty) a lot about this famous festival has changed with the modern times. Many of the old customs have drifted into obscurity, but families still take time off to relax and reconnect, sing songs and celebrate their heritage. Visitors can often see families gathered at temples giving offerings to the ancestors. Plus those with Chinese family or friends might even be able to join in on the Dongzhi parties and feasts. However, depending on where one is in the East, the festival could look a bit different.
Singaporeans celebrate by eating the traditional tangyuan, but dress it up with pandan leaves and ginger. Malaysian Chinese simply host friends and family for a meal, while Hong Kong citizens give gifts and dress up in new clothes. The Taiwanese show up everyone and steam nine-layer rice cakes in the shape of turtles, cows, ducks, etc and then eat themselves into food comas (literally, the practice is based on animal hibernation). Foodies, you may have just found Valhalla.
Happy Dongzhi, happy winter solstice festival!