Choice Chengyu is a regular column, examining interesting, unique or newsworthy examples of chengyu—four-character idioms or proverbs, derived from historical and mythical events.
The traditional Chinese calendar divides the year into 24 solar terms. Lidong (立冬, “Start of Winter”), the 19th term, will begin on November 8 this year. As the first solar term of the winter season, lidong indicates that crops harvested in autumn should be stored up.
Since ancient times, the beginnings of seasons have been celebrated as important festivals. To welcome the winter, the emperor would lead high-ranking officials to the suburbs to hold special ceremonies. Ordinary people, on the other hand, would eat dumplings in memory of Zhang Zhongjing, the famous physician of the Eastern Han dynasty, who, according to folklore, invented dumplings to save many people from frostbite around the start of winter.
There are many chengyu about winter, describing both the beauty of the frozen scenery and the shocking cold. So, before you prepare dumplings for celebration (or don’t, if you’re in the south), sample the following Chinese idioms:
秋收冬藏 Harvest in autumn and store in winter
In the Han dynasty volume Records of the Historian, the author Sima Qian summarized the rules of agricultural production as “Plant in spring; grow in summer; harvest in autumn; store in winter (春生夏长，秋收冬藏 chūn shēng xià zhǎng, qiū shōu dōng cáng).” This chengyu refers to the natural laws of development.
寒来暑往 The cold comes and the heat departs
Generated from The Book of Changes, this chengyu describes the alternation of seasons, and is also used to lament the passage of time.
As summer goes and winter comes, we have spent seven years here.
Hán lái shǔ wǎng, wǒmen zài zhèlǐ yǐjīng shēnghuó le qī nián le.
天寒地冻 The sky is cold and the earth is frozen
Originating in the Song dynasty, this chengyu is a popular way to describe the cold of winter.
She bundled herself up in several warm sweaters before going out into the freezing cold.
Wàimiàn tiānhán dìdòng de, tā chūmén qián guǒ le hǎo jǐ jiàn máoyī.
冰天雪地 A world covered with ice and snow
This chengyu, while containing both ice and snow, stressing the freezing temperatures of winter more than the season’s natural beauty.
Even in the ice and snow, we can feel the warmth of friendship.
Jíshǐ shì zài zhè bīngtiān xuědì lǐ, wǒmen hái shì néng gǎnshòu dào yǒuyì de wēnnuǎn.
银装素裹 Outfitted in silver and wrapped in white
Many people enjoy the snow-laden scenery of winter. Covered under several layers of pure snow, the world looks as if it’s wrapped in silver and white.
The whole city becomes a silver world in winter.
Zhěnggè chéngshì zài dōngtiān lǐ yípiàn yínzhuāng sùguǒ.
Chairman Mao Zedong appreciated snowy scenery as well. In his famous poem “Snow,” Mao changed one character of this chengyu, making it into 红装素裹 (dressed in red and wrapped in white), to describe a red sun sparkling over the white ground. It reads: “Viewed on a sunny day, all are clad in reddish white, exceptionally enchanting. 须晴日，看红装素裹，分外妖娆。”
白雪皑皑 Snow gleams white
The duplicated 皑皑 is an adjective only used to describe snow or frost, meaning that the snow is lovely and white. In some literature, it’s also used as a metaphor to describe an elderly person’s hair.
Snow gleamed on the summit of Mount Tai.
Tàishān dǐng shang báixuě ái ái.
雪虐风饕 Heavy snow sweeps and monstrous winds blow
Though a snowy scenery can be lovely, snowstorms can be scary and dangerous. This chengyu is used to describe the might of a snowstorm. Song dynasty poet Lu You once wrote about plum blossoms in winter, saying:
Standing righteously in the sweeping snow and blowing gale, the plum blossom has the highest integrity of all flowers.
Xuě nuè fēng tāo yù lǐnrán, huā zhōng qìjié zuì gāojiān.
松柏后凋 The pine and the cypress are the last to wither
Chinese people speak highly of plants that can survive the coldness of winter. Like the plum blossom, the evergreen pine and cypress also receive lots of praise. This idiom means that “a person with lofty ideals and unswerving determination will stick through to the end,” or “honesty and virtue will pass through the test of time.”
In The Analects, Confucius invokes this phrase: “Only in the cold winter does one know that the pine and the cypress are the last to shed their leaves. (岁寒，然后知松柏之后凋也。)” It means that harsh environments can test whether one has a strong mind, perseverance, and noble character.