Winter Solstice Folklore: 8 Stories in China

Winter Solstice has a history of over 2,500 years in China. There are many interesting Winter Solstice stories of its origin and customs, especially the dining customs, like why eat dumplings, glutinous rice balls, wontons, etc.

1. Origin from the Legendary Yellow Emperor and Yao Emperor

It is said that Yellow Emperor, or Huangdi, the ancestor of Chinese people, made the Winter Solstice as the New Year Day. And then Yao Emperor, a legendary monarch in ancient China, ordered people to observe the activity of the sun specially, so as to set the date of Winter Solstice. It was the first solar term that was fixed. All these show that the Winter Solstice was important in ancient times.

See also 2, 500 Years’ History of Winter Solstice in China

2. Doctor Zhang Zhongjing Invented Dumplings

This Winter Solstice story tells why people eat dumplings on that day. Zhang Zhongjing, the famous doctor in late Eastern Han Dynasty (25 - 220 AD), found many people’s ears were frozen and festered in the snowy winter. He then came up with an idea to help these people. He asked his followers to set up a medical shed in the street, boiled mutton with pepper and some Chinese medicines; after, chopped them and wrapped them into doughs; at last he boiled these for people to eat. After taking the food, the ears of people were cured. Since then, people have eaten the food on Winter Solstice and named it jiaozi, literally dumplings, which said can prevent the ears from being frozen.

3. Eat Dumplings to Memorize Fairy Jiao

There is a Winter Solstice folklore said that eating dumplings is in memory of Fairy Jiao. In the Liang Dynasty (502 – 557 AD), the emperor believed in Buddhism very much so that he forbade his people to eat meat and to sacrifice meat to heavenly gods. The heavenly gods were so unhappy with the sacrifice and made people suffer a three-year drought.

The cypress tree fairy can't bear to see the people suffering, and turned into a girl, named Jiao, on Winter Solstice. She then taught people to wrap meat into doughs and sacrificed the food as offerings to the gods. Gods were moved by her actions, so rain came. Later, Jiao was murdered by the emperor. To memorize the Fairy Jiao and her good deeds, people named the food jiaozi, with similar pronunciation with Jiao’s name and have made and eaten dumplings since then on her birthday, the Winter Solstice.

4. Folklore of Eating Glutinous Rice Balls - Celebrate Family Reunion

People in southern China, especially in Fujian province, eat glutinous rice balls on the Winter Solstice. There are several Winter Solstice stories about this tradition.

Among those stories, the most famous one is to say there was a widow who brought her son up alone, and her son came out first in the imperial examination and was given an important position by the emperor. The son worked so hard that he had no time to visit his mother. He asked his servant to send money to his mother every month. But the servant lost the money for gambling every time. Receiving no message of her son, the widow was angry thinking she was abandoned and then hid in the mountain.

Three years later, the son went home and knew all the things. He went into the mountain to seek for his mother. It was winter time and there was nothing to eat in the mountain, so the son made glutinous rice balls and placed them along the road home. After his mother followed the glutinous rice balls to go back home, he explained everything clearly and the family reunited finally. It was a Winter Solstice when the family reunited and later generations eat glutinous rice balls on Winter Solstice to celebrate the family reunion.

5. Story of Eating Wontons - Pray for Peace

During the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), the northern nomadic Xiongnu tribe often harassed the frontiers, and there were always wars. As the Winter Solstice story said, there were two tribe chiefs at that time. People hated them, so they wrapped meat stuffing into doughs, and named the food after the two chiefs’ names as wonton. They then boiled and ate wontons, hoping to stop the wars and to live on peace. Because the wontons were initially made and ate on the Winter Solstice, eating wontons has been a Winter Solstice custom.

6. Wontons and the Beauty Xishi

The earliest Winter Solstice folklore about wontons is related to the beauty Xishi in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC). According to the legend, when the state of Yue was defeated by the state of Wu, the king of Wu obtained treasures of Yue as well as the great beauty of Yue, Xishi. One day, the king of Wu ate the food made by Xishi, thin dough wrapped with meat fillings, he loved it so much and asked what it was. The king was foolish and ignored the political affairs, so Xishi said that this food was named wonton, a word that had similar pronunciation of "chaos", to satirize the king of Wu. Later, the food spread among the folks and the king of Wu set the rule to eat wontons on the Winter Solstice to commemorate Xishi for her wisdom and creativity.

7. Eat Red Bean Glutinous Rice in South China

People in south China would eat red bean glutinous rice on Winter Solstice. This is related to a Winter Solstice folklore. In ancient time, there was a wicked man who died on the day of the Winter Solstice. After he died, he became an evil ghost and continued to harm people. However, he was afraid of red beans, so people cooked red bean glutinous rice on the Winter Solstice to avoid evil spirits and to prevent diseases.

8. Winter Solstice is the Birthday of Cow

It is a Winter Solstice story in Taiwan. Once upon a time, there was a carpenter lived in the village where the soil was very fertile. Farmers did not need to work hard for harvest and had a lot of spare time so they gathered in the carpenter shop to chat all day long. They were so noisy that the carpenter couldn’t calm down to work. Then he gave a packet of sawdust to his student and asked him to scatter a little every morning to the farmers' fields. These sawdust would become weeds.

The purpose of the carpenter was to make the farmers to squat the grass every day. Unexpectedly, the student was too lazy to scatter sawdust every day, and he poured all the sawdust once and for all. As a result, all the fields grew dense weeds, the crops withered, and the farmers suffered a lot.
The carpenter made his student a cow as a punishment and let him help farmers squatting weeds. But the cow complained a lot. When the Buddha in heaven knew that, he nailed a nail on the chin of the cow so that it could no longer complain but only work hard. Later, in order to thank cows for their hard work over the past year, people chose the Winter Solstice as its birthday and made the day a comfortable day off for cows.

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- Last updated on Aug. 15, 2019 -
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