Traditional Chinese Winter Solstice Tales

5 min read

The winter solstice in China falls on December 22. Winter Solstice is one of the traditional Chinese festivals and also one of the twenty-four solar terms that reflect the seasonal changes (including 8 terms): Start of Spring, Start of Summer, Start of Autumn and Start of Winter mark the Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumn Equinox, and Winter Solstice that reflects the height changes of the sun.

Legend has it that Yellow Emperor created the Winter Solstice as the New Year Day and The Yao Emperor, a monarch in ancient China, ordered the people to observe the movement of the sun, so the date of Winter Solstice was fixed. That was the first solar term. Since the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), by observing the movements of the sun with a sundial, China had determined the point of Winter Solstice.

Dumplings or tangyuan (stuffed ball made of rice flour) are dined on in celebration of the day.

Winter Solstice stories and customs have been passed down through the generations. The origin of these interesting customs, especially feasting on dumplings, rice balls, wontons, etc. are illustrated out in these magical tales.

Frozen ears

This Winter Solstice story tells the cultural history of dumpling eating. Zhang Zhongjing was a very famous doctor in the late Eastern Han Dynasty(25 – 220 AD) He noticed many people’s ears were frozen from the cold and festering from the cold. He thought and thought and then Dr.Zhang came up with an idea. He and his colleagues set up a medical street shelter. They boiled mutton with pepper and Chinese herbs. After chopping it finely chopped they wrapped it in dough dumplings; then they boiled these for people to eat. After eating the dumplings, the ears of the people were warmed and healed. The people named them Jiaozi, meaning dumplings.

Jiaozi Dumplings

 Fairy Jiao

There is a Winter Solstice tale that says that eating dumplings is in remembrance of the Fairy Jiao. In the Liang Dynasty (502 – 557 AD), the emperor believed in Buddhism so he forbade his people to eat meat. The heavenly gods were not as happy as the aroma of meat forms part of their food. So the gods sent a drought that lasted for three years.
The cypress tree fairy can’t bear to see the people suffering, so she turned herself into a girl, named Jiao, on Winter Solstice. She taught people to wrap meat into a dough and sacrificed the meat dumplings to the gods. Gods had mercy on and so they sent rain. To commemorate the Fairy Jiao and her good deeds, people named the food Jiaozi, and have made and eaten dumplings since then on her birthday, the Winter Solstice.

 Rice balls and family reunion

In Southern China, especially in Fujian province, people eat rice balls on the Winter Solstice. One of the most famous stories is about a widow and her son. Her son was granted an honored position by the emperor. He worked so hard that he had no time to visit his mother. To make up for it he asked his servant to send money to his mother every month. But the careless servant squandered the money on gambling. On receiving no message from her son, the widow was so grieved she hid away in a mountain.

Three years later, the son went home. He went into the mountain to look for his mother. It was winter and there was nothing to eat on the mountain. The son made rice balls and placed them along the road that led home. His mother followed the glutinous rice balls home, and he explained everything clearly and the family reunited. Later generations eat glutinous rice balls on Winter Solstice to celebrate a family reunion.

 Sweet Glutinous Rice Balls

Eating Wotons – for Peace

During the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), the northern nomadic Xiongnu tribe often attacked by the frontiers, The wars were never-ending. The legend goes, that there were two tribe chiefs. People despised them, so they wrapped meat stuffing into doughs, and named the food after the two chiefs’ names as wonton. They then boiled and ate wontons, hoping to stop the wars and to live in peace. Because the wontons were initially made and ate on the Winter Solstice, eating wontons is a Winter Solstice custom.

Wontons and the Beauty Xishi

One of the earliest Winter Solstice tales is about a lovely lady called Xishi. When the state of Yue was taken by the state of Wu, the king of Wu collected the treasures of Yue which included the Lady of Yue. One day, the king of Wu ate the food presented by Xishi. It was thin dough wrapped in meat fillings. The King loved it so much and asked Xishi what it was. The King was weak and ignored political affairs, so Xishi said that this food was called wonton, to satirize the King of Wu. Later, the food spread among the folks and the king of Wu made it a rule to the eating of wontons on the Winter Solstice to commemorate Xishi for her wisdom and creativity.

Little fried wantons

 An evil ghost and red bean glutinous rice

Why do people eat red bean glutinous rice on Winter Solstice in southern China? There was a wicked man who died on the Winter Solstice. After he died, he became an evil ghost and he continued to harm and haunt people. Yet, he was afraid of red beans, so people cooked red bean glutinous rice on the Winter Solstice to avoid evil spirits and to prevent diseases.

Red bean glutinous rice cookies

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