Published on 2023.01.04


Lesser cold:
The beginning of fashions of flowers, and the wild geese are flying Northwards


Obtaining one hundred thousand arrows from the enemy with straw-covered warships (草船借箭) and burning the enemy’s interconnected vessels by the Red Cliff with fire set on magical East wind (火燒赤壁) are the extremely popular scenarios of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義), which was a famous Chinese historical romance written in spoken Chinese language (白話). The most famous quote from these scenarios came with a quote in the novel, which described a secret dialogue between the prime minister of Shu Kingdom Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮, 181-234) and the Commander-in-chief of the Wu Kingdom Zhou Yu (周瑜, 175-210) on the strategic plans, “everything is well-prepared, we need to wait for the East Wind” (萬事俱備, 只欠東風). According to the work History of the three kingdoms in Book of Wei Kingdom : Chronicles of Kings (《三國志•魏書•武帝紀》) written by historian Chen Shou (陳壽, 233-297), the war commenced on the twelfth month of the thirteenth year of Jian’an period by Han Emperor Liu Xian (建安十三年, equivalent to A.D. 208). Here the East Wind refers to the spring breeze coming from the East. Therefore, Zhou Yu revealed his doubt to his chief advisor Lu Xu (魯肅, 172-217), “Zhuge Liang’s words are absurd. It is already winter time, how could we find the South-East wind (孔明之言謬矣。隆冬之時,怎得東南風乎)?” When the Southern-East Wind blew, the author of The Romance of the three kingdoms wrote, “Zhou Yu was scared and said, ‘the man (Zhuge Liang) knew the way to change the weather and magics that are even unknown by Ghosts and Gods (周瑜駭然曰:此人有奪天地造化之法、鬼神不測之術)!’” In hindsight, from the perspective of ancient Chinese account of the twenty-four solar terms and ancient theories of Yin-Yang and the five elements, Zhuge Liang’s trick was actually an ingenious application of meteorological knowledge upon the reviving phenomenon of The Qi of Yang (陽氣復生) in the midst of winter. In the novel, Cao Cao (曹操, 155-220), the commander of the enemy army actually understood the characteristic of the weather, unfortunately, he was not aware of Zhuge Liang’s strategy underneath the breeze of the South-East wind. Therefore, even when Cao’s advisor reminded him to prepare for the breeze of the South-East wind, Cao simply laughed and confidently replied, “The Winter Solstice is the time when the first Yang evolved (冬至一陽生), this is a time of ever-changing weather, therefore, it is natural that South-East wind could happen. Nothing surprising at all (冬至一陽生,來復之時,安得無東南風?何足為怪!)!”

It is obvious that behind the scene of the famous battle of Red Cliff (赤壁之戰) was the synergy of the clever master plan and the facilitation of the weather (人算, 天時). This also provides additional information and inspiration to the understanding of the feature of weather in the midst of the winter and its corresponding cultural meaning for ancient Chinese. After the Winter Solstice, subsequent solar terms are Lesser Cold and Greater Cold (小寒、大寒). Among the twenty-four solar terms, Lesser Cold is also regarded as festival of the twelfth month (十二月節), which comes along with the Greater Cold as the coldest time of the last month of the year in midst of the cold winter. Chinese adage which described the Northern weather quotes, “at the time of Lesser Great, the second or third cycle of Nine days, it comes the Lesser Cold, when the sky is cold, the earth is freezing and human beings are shivering (小寒時處二三九,天寒地凍冷到抖).”

In Southern China, the warmth from the earth persists for a slightly longer time, the coldest time of the year does not arrive until the fourth cycle of nine days (四九), which is around the time of the Greater Cold (大寒). However, a thin layer of Yang Qi, which evolves in such a cold weather, often develops into South-East Wind, making us feel delighted and hopeful. In the previous paragraph we quoted a phrase from the novel, “Cao Cao laughed and said, the Winter Solstice is the time when the first Yang evolved (冬至一陽生).” This reminds us of the message that the Yang qi evolved in the winter and Spring just silently and secretly comes. Regarding the solar term, in ancient Chinese cultural texts there are abundant descriptions of such phenomenon. For example, from The diagram illustrating seventy two special features of the year explained with hexagrams (卦氣七十二候圖), the period before the arrival of Lesser cold, which is between Greater Snow and Winter Solstice could be matched with the hexagram 24 in I-Ching (易經) , The Return (fu 復, 卦 ). The preview of the hexagram literally means thunder (trigram Zhen 震☳) under the earth (trigram Kun 坤,☷), and the Yang (unbroken stroke) was under the five Yin (broken stoke), which means the One (beginning of Yang) is evolving. This implies that the Yang was evolving from the ground. Between the period of the solar term’s Lesser Cold and Greater Cold, even though weather becomes even colder, the corresponding hexagram is the Nearing (Lin 臨 ), where we can find the number of Yang strokes increasing from one to two, indicating that the power of nourishing from the nature is growing. Therefore, Zhuge Liang’s utilization of the East Wind is actually a manifestation of the nourishing power of the nature. On the other hand, the fauna and flora, which is responsive to the changing Qi of the heaven and the earth, begins to deliver the message from the spring in various ways.

Based on common sense, blossom of flowers is the sign of the spring. From the perspective of Chinese culture of the twenty-four solar terms, it was believed that flowers, which are the messengers of the spring, has already kick-started in the midst of winter in the last month of the year. The ancient Chinese belief of twenty-four fashions of flowers (二十四番花信風) is a good representation of such phenomenon. The fashion of flowers means the trend of blossom of different types of flowers. Twenty-four fashions are associated with corresponding solar terms. It is believed that it begins with Lesser Cold and ends at Grain Rain (穀雨), which is a period of four months that covers eight solar terms. Five days comprise a phase, with twenty-four phases in total. Each phase is aligned with the blossom of different flowers. Lesser Cold is the starting point of the twenty-four phases in flower fashions, the sequence of the first three phases of flower fashions in the fifteenth days is, “first, plum blossom, second, camellia, third, daffodil (一候梅花,二候山茶,三候水仙).”

In the last article about the solar term of the Winter Solstice, we quoted ancient Chinese poems inspired by the blossoming of plum flowers, and even The Diagram Of Counting Nine Cycles Of Nine Days To Drive Coldness Away (九九消寒圖) adopted eighty-one petals of plum blossoms for one to fill-in for counting the days. In Lesser Cold, even the cold air current is becoming harsh, yet the Qi of Yang is also becoming more powerful, therefore the plum blossom in the winter is becoming more attractive. Therefore, people still regard plum blossom as the sign of Lesser Cold, as well as the starting point of the twenty-four fashions of flowers. This not only embraces people’s yearning for the energetic time of the spring, but also represent ancient Chinese capacity of seeing the whole picture from the grains. Yan Shu (晏殊, 991-1055) from the Northern Song Dynasty said in his famous lyric The Butterfly Loves the Flower (蝶戀花), “I know that the flower is coming in the latter part of the last month, and the plum blossom has already carried the message of the East wind (臘後花期知漸近,寒梅已作東風信).” This implies that the poet regarded plum blossom as the messenger of the spring. In the Yuan Dynasty, Wang Mian (王冕, 1287-1359) also wrote in Ode to an ink painting of plum blossom, (墨梅) about the righteous character symbolized by plum blossom, “it doesn’t need praise from others, but provides clear fragrance to the sky and earth in a low key manner (不要人誇好顏色,只留(一作流)清氣滿乾坤).” His another poem White Plum Blossom (白梅) described the delight of the plum blossom telling the good news of the spring. “Suddenly, I found the clear fragrance in the night, which diffused far away between the sky and the earth to bring in the spring (忽然一夜清香發,散作乾坤萬里春).” In spring, when various flowers blossom, people tend to praise flowers from the angle of colour and brightness. In the last month of the year, which is icy and freezingly cold, the light scent of plum blossoms alternatively triggers ones’ sense of smell and awareness of the coming of the spring. Luo Dajing (羅大經, circa 1196 – circa 1252), in his book Dews on Jade in the Forest with cranes (鶴林玉露) quoted the work from an unknown nun titled Enlightenment (悟道詩), which said, “I search for the spring which comes nowhere, I walk all over the clouds in the mountain. When I return, I smell the scent of the plum blossom, and I realize that the spring is already on the tip of the tree branches (盡日尋春不見春,芒鞋踏遍隴(一作嶺)頭雲。歸來笑拈梅花嗅,春在枝頭已十分).” From this poem, we realize the following: plum blossom in the midst of the winter is reminding us that the beauty of the spring not only lies in the colourful flowers, the birds’ singing and chirping, but also in the scent of the spring that comes into the sense of smell. 

If the plum blossom is the earliest messenger of the spring, then the wild geese (雁) could be regarded as the deity that firstly senses the coming of the spring. In the article about the solar term of White Dew (白露), we have mentioned that when the autumn became cool, the wild geese were flying Southwards. This is a feature of the solar term White Dew. In Wu Cheng’s (吳澄, 1249-1333) work An investigation of features of the seventy-two sectors of a year (月令七十二候集解), it was mentioned that the first feature of the solar term of Lesser Cold is Wild Gooses Flying Northwards (雁北鄉). Here the Chinese term Beixiang (北向) is the same as (北嚮), which both means “heading Northwards”. The explanation is that “birds got the first time information of the air (禽鳥得氣之先).” In the solar term of Lesser Cold, the wild geese that migrated to the South realize early that the Qi of Yang is reviving, therefore a small group of wild geese is starting for the north and flying Northwards. From this point until the Beginning of the Spring in the next year, all wild geese have already come back home. Many people are familiar with the famous quote from Su Shi (蘇軾, 1037-1101), “ducks are the first ones to know that the water in the stream would become warm in the spring (春江水暖鴨先知).” The ambience of this is of course very romantic, however, from the perspective of Chinese culture of the twenty-four solar terms, it is not the case. Ducks which swim on the streams and rivers after the arrival of the spring are not the first ones to know the spring has arrived, but the wild geese - which are flying Northwards in the sky since the arrival of solar term of Lesser Cold, are the first ones to know the coming of the spring.





1. 陳壽著,陳乃乾校點:《三國志》(北京:中華書局,1959年),頁30-31。

2. 陳曦鐘、宋祥瑞、魯玉川輯校:《三國演義會評本》(北京:北京大學出版社,1986年),頁608-621。

3. 喬忠延:《跟著節氣過日子》(太原:北嶽文藝出版社,2021年),頁312-313。

4. 董點觀由:《二十四節氣:中國人詩意的時間哲學》(廈門:廈門大學出版社,2022年),頁380-383。

5. 雲立新、蔡連衛主編:《二十四節氣農耕文化教程》(青島:中國海洋大學出版社,2023年),頁250-257。


News or Magazine Articles

1. 吳心怡:〈小寒:大雁北飛,春日在望〉,《文匯報》,2023年1月4日。

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.

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一剪梅 《小寒-花信風起雁北飛》

溫流偶有 待春歸。

東風橫渡 飾春幃。


Chi Seng Pun

09-01-2024 10:55:17