Winter Solstice

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.

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The I Ching and the Winter Solstice

Some hexagrams of the I Ching are associated with the seasons. Hexagram 24, Returning (Fu), is specifically linked to the Winter Solstice and the eleventh moon. Understanding the graphic structure of this hexagram can help make the philosophy and symbolism of the solstice clear.

The bottom of the hexagram is the early stage of a situation, the top is the ending of a situation. Viewed as a diagram of time, the top five lines of the hexagram’s split lines, representing yin, show a situation of nearly complete darkness (one of yin’s attributes). Only one yang line, represented by an unbroken line, has appeared at the bottom, the traditional “entrance” to the hexagram. Therefore, this hexagram is seen as a graph of light returning to a situation of almost complete darkness. Thus, the hexagram is clearly shows the time of the solstice—just as darkness is nearly complete, then light must return.

Commentators on the I Ching have explained that all movement is analyzed according to the six stages represented by the six lines of the hexagram. The seventh stage brings return. Corresponding to this, the winter solstice occurs in the seventh month after the summer solstice, as sunrise occurs in the seventh double-hour after sunset.

Three texts accompany each hexagram. One of the three texts is called the Image, reputedly written by Confucius himself.

Thunder in the center of the earth: returning.
The ancient kings closed the borders during the solstices
Traveling merchants did not journey.
Sovereigns did not tour the provinces.

This means that the winter solstice was seen as a time of rest and renewal. During winter, the life energy is dormant and much of nature is resting. The movement that will bring a restoration of life is underground. If one looks at the hexagram spatially, the yang line that represents the return of life is still under the earth. The sages extrapolated from this to suggest what we should do whenver there is a darkness in our life: we rest and renew ourselves. Whether this means the return of health after illness, the return of understanding after conflict, or the return of good fortune after disaster, the return of good has to be allowed to come in its own time, and it must be strengthened by rest and care.

The Statement, contributed by King Wen, emphasizes the forbearance necessary to acept the cyclical nature of life. Since the I Ching is partially a book of divination, the profundity of how it would have us accept cycles and to work with returning is of vital importance:

Returning. Continue.
In coming and going, there is neither sickness nor distress.
Companions come without fault.
Returning is its Tao.
In seven days, returning comes.
Gain by having a place to go.

The Winter Solstice is the time to reunite with our families, enjoy good food that will aid in renewal, and to contemplate the truth of the seasons. Whenever we are oppressed by darkness, light is sure to return.

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The Beijing Wushu Team Coming to the San Francisco Bay Area

The Beijing Wushu Team is coming to the San Francisco Bay Area. There will be two performances at Stanford University on January 18 and 19 and a matinee and evening performance in San Francisco. Come see the current Chinese martial arts champions. For more information, see


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Selling iPhones in the Underworld

When Steve Jobs died, a temple medium in Penang, Malaysia held a ritual at Pulau Jerejak so that Jobs could be reincarnated. The medium also announced that he was authorized as a general agent for iPhones in the underworld. He added that Yama, the King of the Underworld, would use an iPad to access the records of the living and dying.

The ritual required participants to take a bite from an apple and to observe three minutes of silence before throwing the apple into the sea. Some people ate their apples before the ritual was completed.

Other Taoists spoke out against the ceremony, saying that the only way that the dead could receive items was by burning them. The head of one association declared:

“Taoist believers burn only traditional items like houses and maids.”

As is so often the case, both sides in the story have muddled the situation. However, there are some traditional elements to be affirmed here. The idea of helping someone be reincarnated is a part of Buddhist practices and has been adopted into Taoist practices as well. Wanting to make contact with the deceased is a ritual that brings comfort and acceptance of death. Offerings to the dead are an important cultural practice. Unfortunately, everyone involved in this situation has distorted the tradition nearly beyond recognition. If anyone was even mildly interested in what Taoism has to offer, we would understand if they lost all enthusiasm after such a story.

We often seem to believe the most stubbornly to what we know the least. Let us ask then, is belief simply what we do to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know? Are we mere children, making up stories of demons in the closet, or reasons why a fairy star will come down and help us? This is the kind of belief that we must try to outgrow. Certainly, it makes for entertaining tales. A novelist ought not to lose touch with this level of consciousness, and even a spiritual teacher might spin entertaining fantasies that still have great teaching at their core. However, when we are alone and confronting the important questions in life, belief-as-fantasy is unreliable.

There is so we don’t know and will never know. As Laozi says, knowing that you don’t know is superior. Belief is necessary, but choose the belief of faith and not the belief of fantasy—even if it is has the name of your favorite religion. We need to move beyond telling ourselves stories to comfort ourselves and instead try to perceive the truth directly.

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The Second Annual Morton Marcus Poetry Reading and Poetry Archive

Kay Ryan gave a wonderful reading last night. She introduced each of her poems with dry and sardonic wit, preparing us for poems that made their points quickly and suddenly, and with a perfection reinforced by subtle rhyme. cheap domain . Gary Young, the poet laureate of Santa Cruz, was our host, and poets Shirley Ancheta and Jeff Tagami gave superb readings.

Prior to the reading, the University of Santa Cruz’s Special Collections department opened an exhibition of Mort’s personal papers, manuscripts, and recordings. The exhibition won’t be open to the public until January 2012 but we got a great preview of a beautiful space for studying rare books.


Photo of Morton Marcus archive, UCSC Special Collections Aranyossy

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The Second Annual Morton Marcus Memorial Poetry Reading

This reading in memory of my poetry teacher, Morton Marcus, features readings by 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner and 2008–2010 U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, as well as Gary Young, Jeff Tagami, and Shirley Ancheta. load test website UCSC’s Music Recital Hall; Sunday, November 20, 2011; 3:00 pm. Admission is free.

His archive will also be on display at the McHenry Library.

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Be water

Be Water.
Plunge from the cliff and fear no harm.
Cover the globe and flood the shores.

Be water.
Fill the well and wet each mouth.
Swell the river and drench the earth.
Brim the
lake and spawn the fish.

Be water.
You boil as steam but are not burnt.
You rain from clouds but are not lost.
You blow as snow but are not spent.
You freeze to ice but are not stopped.

Be water.
When you pool the mud will settle.
Once you cleanse you come out pure.
Be the tear that makes us human.

Be water.
Drop or ocean you are the same.
Be what no eternity can alter:

Be water. nitro cloud . . Tasuracoka

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