What is Dong Zhi?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Dong Zhi, sometimes spelled as Dongzhi, is the Chinese (and sometimes other Asian group’s) celebration of the Winter Solstice. This holiday is usually held on 22 December, though this date may change yearly depending upon when the Solstice falls, and is often considered only slightly less important than traditional Chinese New Year celebrations. It is a time to celebrate the end of the darkest days of the year, the end of the harvest, and also to honor ancestors and champion family togetherness.

Chinese around the world often celebrate Dong Zhi.
Chinese around the world often celebrate Dong Zhi.

Dong Zhi celebrations have existed for a very long time. Scholars believe observation of the Solstice first began during the Han Dynasty, which lasted from about 200 BCE to 200 CE. The idea of family reunion soon became intertwined with the holiday, because traditionally this was when many agricultural workers would have finished their work and would return to their families, often after being away for many months. Since the harvest is finished, Dong Zhi is somewhat comparable to Thanksgiving; harvested food is stored, and celebrants express thankfulness over the bounty provided that year.

An interesting practice that may occur during Dong Zhi, especially for those who farm animals, is that many thoroughly clean out areas where livestock are kept to reward the livestock for serving them well during the year. Others give household utensils an extra special cleaning as a gesture of thanks and respect for these utensils’ service.

Celebrations of Dong Zhi usually involve families gathering together, again bearing resemblance to Thanksgiving as celebrated in Canada and the US. Feasting is a part of celebrating the harvest, and there are certain special foods associated with the holiday. In Southern China, families normally make Tang Yuan, brightly colored balls of sticky or glutinous rice. These may be stuffed, and may be served in a broth, or a sweet soup depending upon family tradition. The rice gluten holding the balls together symbolizes family togetherness, and each family member will get one or more of them.

The Northern Chinese tend to prefer to serve hot dumplings, almost always stuffed with meat. In both Northern and Southern celebrations, tang yuan or dumplings are usually served hot as a promise of warmer days ahead and as a contrast to the cold outside. Many other foods may be served, which vary according to region and family preference.

In addition to celebrating the harvest, the end to the long days of winter, and family togetherness, Dong Zhi references the principles of yin and yang as laid forth in the I Ching. The longest night of the year gives way to longer days, which are believed to increase positive energy. Thus the day not only celebrates the days of winter and the harvest it has brought, when positive energy is decreased, but looks forward to the increase of positive energy that helps to balance the universe.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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