Bryan Zepp Jamieson
December 21st, 2022
Back about 500 BCE, some 250 years before Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth using nothing more than two sticks planted about 250 miles apart, a Chinese savant named Zhougfong, using nothing more than a stick in the sand, calculated Earth’s axial tilt and concluded that for the phenomenon to work, the Earth had to be a globe circling the sun at a rakish angle of 23.44 degrees. By measuring the angle of the sun at local noon each day over a year, he determined that the solstices fell six months apart on the dates we now know as December 20-22 and June 20-22. The equinoxes fell exactly halfway through the solstices, and the days and nights were equal, and the shadow of his stick ended exactly halfway through the shadows cast on the solstices.
While Chinese farmers had already doubtlessly noted the variations in the length of the day, the positions of sunrise and sunset, and the angle of the sun at noon, Zhougfong was the first known to carefully measure it and reason out the implications.
China, then as now, was a land of great seasonal variation, and the Solstices indicated the onset of deep winter and blazing hot summer. So, as with many similar places on Earth, the occasion of the Winter Solstice, the date on which the days stopped getting shorter, was marked with special celebrations and songs.
In China, the Winter Solstice is known as Dōngzhì, which can mean “Winter’s extreme” or “Winter is coming.” The Chinese take on Solstice is a bit different from most other cultures. Most note it as the date when the days begin getting longer, the sun is higher in the sky, and spring is coming. The Chinese, however, see it as the onset of the great cold and desolation of winter, something to be endured in order to anticipate spring.
Solstice marks the beginning of “The Nines of Winter.” A folk song (Shujiu) describes those stages of winter in a way that anyone from the northern lands would instantly relate to:
1st nine days, 2nd nine days, don’t take hands out of your pockets;
3rd nine days, 4th nine days, you can walk on ice;
5th nine days, 6th nine days, willows at the river’s edge start to sprout;
7th nine days, ice dissolves and water flows in the river;
8th nine days, wild geese fly back to northern areas;
9th nine days and the following days, farm cattle start to work in the field.
Despite the comparatively negative view of the Solstice, traditional Chinese belief maintains the theme of optimism that is shared throughout the West. Yin and Yang is an important concept and one strongly linked to the reversal of the decline to greater darkness. Yin energy is believed to be at its most powerful winter solstice day. But after that, as the daytime becomes longer, Yang’s energy increases, a positive influence.
While not an official holiday, it is nonetheless celebrated throughout China. It’s a time for friends and family to gather for traditional dinners of lamb dumplings and tangyuan, and is sometimes referred to as “Chinese Thanksgiving Day.” There’s more than a bit of similarity between Dōngzhì and Thanksgiving: both started as holidays celebrating the harvest. By the time of Eratosthenes, the Chinese Emperor mandated food sacrifices to show respect to the heavens and the ancestors. There was a widely held belief in the day that lamb dumplings could cure frostbite. While the science might be a bit problematic, I would be happy to tell someone my toes were a bit numb if I could get some fresh hot lamb dumplings out of it. Perhaps that’s how that notion started.
But China is a big country with wildly varying climates, and where frostbite isn’t a serious public health threat, tangyuan is popular—a rice ball leavened with sesame, red bean paste, and sweets. A China travel guide explains, “wonton is very popular in Suzhou; while mutton soup is must-eat festival food in Western and Northern China. Roasted Duck is the favorite food for People in Guangdong Province, and Jiangsu Duck, or Gingerbread Duck is popular in Xiamen.” Hmmm. Gingerbread duck. Yum.
But the theme is the same throughout China: gratitude, gatherings, respect for ancestors and elders, and quiet feasts as they hunker down for winter.
Counting the Nines is an act of hope, and by the seventh nine, the first clear signs of spring and rebirth emerge. Even the pragmatism of having to bear through the winter is leavened by that ever-rebirthing sign of humanity, hope.
Don’t lose hope. Never lose hope.