Published on 2023.11.07


The Beginning of Winter:
All living things remain silent until the spring returns


In Book of Rites: Chapter of Miscellaneous Notes (《禮記·雜記》) finds the following quotation: Zi-gong (子貢,520-446 B.C., student of Confucius) participated in the end of the year celebration and worshipping rituals. Confucius (551-479 B.C.) asked him if he thought that people were happy or not. Zi-gong answered, “people in the whole country are as happy as mad.” Zi-gong was confused about why people were so crazily happy that they celebrated with drinking and dancing. In response to Zi-gong’s questions, Confucius told him that this was because people had worked so hard for the whole year, and finally there was a little break for relaxation and enjoyment. Furthermore, Confucius guided Zi-gong to find the answer of his question by referring to King Wen of Zhou (周文王,?-circa 1046 B.C.) and King Wu of Zhou (周武王,circa 1076 B.C. – circa 1043 B.C.), who reckoned “taking turns between times of working hard and times of relaxation (一張一弛)” to be the best and ultimate principle of ruling a country.

Confucius’ notion of “taking turns between times of working hard and times of relaxation” is not only a principle of ruling, but also fits with the rhythm of the nature: all living things emerge in the spring, develop in the summer, ripe in the autumn. In the winter, all living things enter the phase of hibernation while farmers see the time for resting and relaxing. The Beginning of Winter (立冬) is one of the twenty-four solar terms that signifies the arrival of the winter and the end of the year. Therefore, ancient Chinese said, “winter is the end of the year when all living things will retreat and hide themselves (冬者,終也,萬物皆收藏也).” According to Annotation to the seventy-two natural phenomena and corresponding mandatories of monthly practices (《月令七十二候集解》) written by Wu Cheng (吳澄, 1249-1333), the Beginning of Winter is the time when “water begins to freeze and earth is chilling”, i.e., both lakes and earth are frozen. In the subsequent three months, the weather has gradually become colder. All living things between heaven and earth remain silent, as if they are immersing themselves in the tranquility of the dreamy scene.  

The earth is silently making reserves to nurture everything living on it. Similarly, depending on different farm produces in different areas, farmers prepare in different ways in order to pass the long cold winter.  This has eventually become rituals and practices related to food culture connected to the Beginning of Winter, Chinese people called this “Feeding in the winter (補冬)”, which is illustrated in the Chinese slang, “The beginning of winter is the solar term when the feeding in the winter to fill up the space in our month starts (立冬補冬, 補嘴空)”. This aims to keep warm and maintain necessary nutrition so that one can be strong enough to resist the cold weather.  In northern China, people mainly celebrate the Beginning of Winter by eating dumplings as in other important festivals. The Chinese character Jiao (餃) in dumpling (Jiao-Zi餃子) shares the same pronunciation with “intersection” (Jiao, 交). Perhaps this is also a representation of the intersection between autumn and winter. Also, the shape of the dumpling is like an ear; therefore, some people regard eating dumplings at the Beginning of Winter (立冬餃) as a means to help one protect one’s ear from frostbite in the winter.  In southern China, although it is not as cold as in the north during the Beginning of Winter, the weather in the early morning and in the night is already quite cold. Even in daytime, one could see more people wearing coats when they are going outdoors to the street. Therefore, in the Beginning of Winter, the practice of “feeding in the winter” is similar to the practice of northern China “putting on weights in the autumn (貼秋膘)”, but it is even more common in the south. For example, in Taiwan area, people eat roasted sweet potatoes (烤紅薯) and ginger-duck stew (薑母鴨). In Shaoxing (紹興) in Zhejiang (浙江) province, people start to make yellow wine, which is called “wine for the winter” (冬釀). In Fu Zhou (福州), people like to prepare stew with meat like chickens, ducks, pork tripes, pig knuckles and different types of root vegetables. In Fu Jian (福建) Province, common recipes include sweet dumplings in soup, “sticky rice dumplings for the Beginning of Winter” (交冬糍), and a kind of rice stew called “red hot fire rice” (炣飯), which is a stew from mixture of fermented black beans (豆豉), Milkvetch (黃芪) rice. In some areas of Guangdong (廣東), apart from eating sticky rice products (糯米), people also eat lamb and mutton for extra nutrition which is believed to be good for health.  As Guangdong (particular in Lingnan (嶺南) area), the temperature is usually high across the whole year, yet in the intersection of late autumn and early winter, the weather becomes dry and cool. Therefore, people believe that lamb and mutton, which helps us to get warm, is a good choice for the weather.

The Beginning of Winter, which was highly regarded by ancient Chinese, was enlisted in the “four seasons and eight important solar terms (四時八節)”. The eight important solar terms are the Beginning of Spring, the Beginning of Summer, the Beginning of Autumn, the Beginning of Winter, the Spring Equinox, the Summer Solace, the Autumn Equinox, and the Winter Solace (立春、立夏、立秋、立冬、春分、夏至、秋分、冬至). These dates are regarded as the important landmarks in the trajectory of the Earth as well as the important moments for life of Chinese people. There are ceremonies to welcome the spring on the Beginning of Spring as Chinese believe that a good planning in the springtime is very important for the whole year. Similarly, even in the cold winter when everything is keep on resting, there are welcoming ceremonies for the winter.  According to Book of Rites in Chapter of Mandatories for each month of the year (《禮記‧月令》), the emperor must fast and take a shower in order to prepare for a holy and clean body for the festival. On the day of the Beginning of Winter, the emperor would lead all government officials to worship the god of Blackness (黑帝) at the northern countryside to welcome the arrival of the winter. The god of Blackness is referring to the god of the north, as in traditional Chinese five-element theories of yin-yang (陰陽五行理論), the corresponding colour of winter is black, which also signifies the north. Therefore, everything related to the worship, such as carts, flags, and clothes, is black in colour.

Black often refers to the status of darkness when there is no light. It also refers to the situation in which everything is hidden and not being seen. The winter is very cold; therefore, it gives us an impression of lifelessness. This fits well with the symbolic meaning of the colour of black. But should the winter be regarded as lifeless if we change our perspective? Not to mention the spectacular scenery of Northern China where massive areas are frozen and snows are falling, in the Southern China, there are still warm sceneries everywhere even after the weather becomes cold after the Beginning of Winter:

Osmanthus blossoms keep on sharing their fragrance, chrysanthemums still blossom, and there are many kinds of fruit available in the winter like pomelo, tangerine, oranges, and olives… Here a poem from Yuan Dynasty (元代) poet Zhang Yining (張以寧,1301-1370) pops up in my mind. The poem, Written in the boat on the day of the Beginning of Winter (〈立冬舟中即事〉), which was written in Guangxi Province (廣西), said, “on the beautiful riverbank, the flower of the reeds are brighter than white feathers. In the windy forest, the ripped tangerine move like a rolling gold nugget ( 露岸葦花明白羽,風林橘子動金丸)”. What a beautiful scenery of the Beginning of the Winter - maybe this could ignite hope when people are still waiting for the return of the spring.






1. 栗元周主編:《細說二十四節氣》(北京:燕山出版社,2016年版),頁180-182。

2. 陳澔注:《禮記》(上海:上海古籍出版社,1987年版),頁96,238。


Journal Article

1. 董晨:〈論二十四節氣與月令文獻的結合〉,《古今農業》,第2期(2023年),頁112-119。


Prof. Chen Yun Feng

 A professor at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Hong Kong Shue Yan University. He is the vice president of the Association of " The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons" and has long been teaching and researching ancient Chinese literature. Professor Chen’s main research interests are the history of Chinese literary criticism, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, and Tang poetics. He has published over 60 research papers and 6 academic monographs.

All articles/videos are prohibited from reproducing without the permission of the copyright holder.

Welcome to leave a message:
Please Sign In/Sign Up as a member and leave a message