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Celebrating Winter Solstice by counting nine

Updated: Jan 04, 2023

Winter Solstice, one of the 24 solar terms and one of the three major festivals in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), has the longest night in the year. It is a day as important as Spring Festival. How did the Qing Dynasty’s ruling prince’s household celebrate the day?

Delicious food provides energy and warmth in winter

Food plays a significant role in traditional Chinese festivals. Nowadays, as the Winter Solstice approaches, disputes about choosing dumplings or tangyuan (the glutinous rice balls with sweet fillings) as the main course for dinner will begin. 

Apart from these two kinds of food, the Qing Dynasty prince’s family would have had wonton for lunch after first offering them in tribute to their ancestors by displaying them in bowls before the ancestors’ portraits on the Winter Solstice. The stuffings included roast duck and winter bamboo shoots, the chicken breast and beans, pork and spinach, pork and garlic chives. Dumpling-shaped wonton was made into the shape of a silver ingot by kneading its two cusps together. A bowl of Winter Solstice wonton was made by cooked fensi (cellophane noodles), wonton, chicken or duck soup, seasoning, and dishes in season with high calories, such as pigeon eggs, quail meat, venison and pheasant.

In the evening, hotpot was served. People had hotpot on the first day of every nine-day period, and on the last day of the ninth such period. That means, hotpot was served ten times during the three-month period following the Winter Solstice and had different recipes each time.

Poetic pleasure in winter

People used various diagrams to count the days to spring, which was called xiaohan tu

The first type of diagram was writing nine nine-stroke characters. From the Winter Solstice, people wrote one stroke of a character every day. After 81 days, all the characters were finished and spring finally came.


A diagram of nine nine-stroke characters is used to count days to spring.

The second type was drawing plum blossoms. Use a brush dipped in red ink to fill one petal of the plum blossoms on a daily basis to turn the plain flowers into red ones to count the days to spring.


A diagram of plain plum blossoms is used to count days to spring.

The third type was filling copper coins to record weather. Nine squares were drawn and there were nine coins in each square. According to a rule, people filled in corresponding coins to record different weather in the 81 days after the Winter Solstice.


A diagram of 81 copper coins is used to record weather and count days to spring. [Photo/Official WeChat account of the Prince Kung’s Palace Museum]

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