Dongzhi - Winter Solstice

Eating Tangyuan and Becoming Older

Dong Zhi - The Winter Solstice

The shortest day of the year—the winter solstice—is called Dōngzhì (冬至) in Mandarin Chinese and has special meaning in the traditional Chinese calendar. The word is made up of two characters, 冬 (dōng) "winder" and 至 (zhì), one of the 24 solar terms that divide the year into 24 equal periods. There is also 夏至 (xìazhì), which, if you know your seasons, then means 'summer solstice.'

This time of the year is celebrated in many cultures, both modern and ancient, and the Chinese are certainly not an exception. Dōngzhì is the day when families get together and eat tāng yuán (汤圆/湯圓), a sweet soup made of glutinous rice balls. It is also the day when everyone becomes one year older.

The Chinese Calendar

The traditional Chinese calendar is divided into 24 equal divisions, each corresponding to 15 degrees of Celestial longitude.

The sun reaches 270 degrees sometime around December 21, the date set on most Western calendars as the winter solstice. Dōngzhì, however, can fall on December 21, 22, or 23.

The Meaning of Dōngzhì

In traditional Chinese society, the arrival of winter meant that the farmers would lay down their tools and celebrate the harvest by coming home to their families. A feast would be prepared to mark the occasion.

These days, Dōngzhì is still an important cultural holiday. Even though most people do not get a day off work, everyone tries to get together with their families to eat tāng yuán (汤圆/湯圓).

Tāng Yuán

You can buy frozen tāng yuán in the supermarket, but it’s not that difficult to make (you should even be able to buy it in most larger cities outside China, provided that there's a substantial Chinese population there). Simply mix glutinous rice flour with water to make a dough. Place it in the refrigerator for about half an hour, then take it out and form it into small balls.

The balls are boiled in water until they float and then put in a syrup of rock sugar and water that has been prepared separately.

Hěn hǎo chī!

Edit: This article was significantly updated by Olle Linge on April 25th 2016.