Winter officially begins today according to Chinese folk tradition. The date is the 19th solar term of the 24 terms in a year, called 立冬 (Lìdōng). If you take the meaning of 立 (to stand up) in modern Chinese, you’ll be a bit lost. In ancient Chinese it means “to begin.” Although Beijing has already seen its first flurry of snow, winter will not come to the southern areas of China until the end of this month, while winter for those in the far north began as early as two months ago.
In ancient China, the four dates signifying the start of each season were called “四立” (four beginnings) and each was celebrated as a festival. As part of the festival the emperor would lead his ministers to the outskirts of Beijing to welcome the winter and ask to be blessed by the gods during the forthcoming season. It was also a time for orphans and widows to be taken care of. An encyclopedia of historical records called “Lu’s Spring and Autumn” (吕氏春秋) and completed in 239 B.C., recorded such events in which the emperor took the three Councilors of the State and nine Ministers to suburban areas in the north. When he returned, he awarded loyalists who had lost their lives for their country and also showed sympathy towards their orphans and widows, making sure they had enough to get them through the harsh winter ahead.
Like all other special days in China, Lidong is not complete until you are treated to a feast. In northern parts of China it is customary for people to eat chicken, duck and fish. On the streets of Taiwan you will find packed restaurants serving mutton stove (羊肉炉) and ginger duck (姜母鸦). If you prefer family style then sesame oil chicken (麻油鸡) and herbal chicken (四物鸡) are the order of today. In the northern parts of China, especially Beijing and Tianjin, people eat jiaozi (饺子).
There are also other innovative ways to celebrate the beginning of winter. In some cities, such as Heilongjiang, Jiangxi and Hubei, many people swim outdoors on this day. No matter if it’s in the north or the south, winter swimming is a popular winter sport.
Master image courtesy of Steve Webel.