The shortest day of the year – the winter solstice – is called Dōng Zhì (冬至) in Mandarin Chinese and has special meaning in the traditional Chinese calendar.
Dōng Zhì is the day when families get together and eat tāng yuán (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. Dōng Zhì, however, can fall on December 21, 22, or 23. In 2011, Dōng Zhì falls on December 22.
The Meaning of Dōng Zhì
The Chinese characters for Dōng Zhì are 冬至. The first character means “winter” and the second character means “arrival.”
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, Dōng Zhì 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.
You can buy frozen tāng yuán in the supermarket, but it’s not that difficult to make. 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!