The Winter Solstice Festival (Dongzhi) is celebrated when the sunlight seems to be at its weakest and the days are the shortest. Therefore, it is a festival deeply tied to the observation of yin and yang: this may be a day that yin is seemingly at its greatest, and yet people know that yin must begin to recede as yang become ascendant with each subsequent day. As is the case with all the other festivals, the Winter Solstice is a time to gather as a family, and naturally, food and visits to one’s ancestral temple are involved
One central food, especially for southern and overseas Chinese is the making and eating of tangyuan (soup with spheres). These are spheres of glutinous rice flour. Their diameters vary according to the tradition of the maker. Some make the balls large, and others make the balls the same size—about an inch in diameter. The balls can be plain or stuffed, and the dish can be sweet or savory. The entire family is expected to gather on this day—tangyuan sounds like tuanyuan, which means family reunion.
Some people make a dish of glutionous rice and red beans in the belief that this will drive away evil spirits. According to one story, Gong Gongshi had an evil son who died on this day, but came back as a malignant spirit who made people ill. Knowing that his son was afraid of red beans, Gong taught everyone how to cook this dish to repel his evil son.
The white spheres are symbols of the completeness of cycles, that there is returning, and that all will be smooth.
In the north, dumplings rather than tangyuan are eaten. This practice is tied to the Han Dynasty physician, Zhang Zhongling (150–219). Seeing poor people suffering from chilblains on their ears, he ordered his apprentices to make mutton dumplings to distribute to the poor. The dumplings themeselves were shaped like ears, and so he named the soup “Expelling-Cold Tender-Ear Soup” (quhan jiaoer tang).
Another northern Chinese custom is to eat a dumpling soup called huntun. During the Han Dynasty, the Huns, led by two leaders, Hun and Tun invaded China. The huntun dumplings became a way to show anger for the enemy. Some people believe there’s a connection between the huntun and the wonton dumpling soup popular today, but this is difficult to establish with certainty.
In the old days, those clans that still maintained family temples had reunions of all members of the family at the ancestral shrines for ceremonies and sacrifice, followed by lavish meals.