How do you know winter has started in Beijing?

It’s a bit of an overused meme by now, but as anyone walking the streets of Beijing knows, ‘winter is coming!’ But aside from the chill in the air, how else do you know when winter has arrived in the north?

Read on to find out!

On November 7th, the 22nd day of the ninth month, winter begins according to the Chinese lunar calendar! The day is the beginning of the 19th of the 24 solar terms, when the sun reaches the celestial longitude of 225°, and this solar term is called Lidong (立冬 Lìdōng), which literally means ‘beginning of winter’.

So how was Lidong marked in ancient China? And how do Chinese today mark the onset of winter?

Although of course China encompasses regions with vastly differing climates, Lidong is generally accepted culturally as the beginning of winter. It is a period of transition in most regions, with mild days tuning cold in northern China and dry days turning wet in southern China. Three main changes were thought to take place during Lidong:

水始冰, ‘Water begins to freeze’
地始凍, ‘The earth begins to harden’
雉入大水為蜃, ‘Pheasants enter the water’ (this refers to the appearance on the coast of a type of clam with colours similar to pheasant plumage)

Also during this period, there was a transition among the common people from the hard work of harvest season to the comparatively quiet winter period, and the same for animals as they prepared for hibernation. 

Modern-day paper clothes to be burned for the ancestors

In ancient China, sacrifices would be made at this time to the ancestors. For example, since burning was the route of material items to the afterlife, paper clothes would be burned to ensure the ancestors were warm enough over the winter. 

Each region of China had its own customs, many of which have almost disappeared today. For example, in northern China people ate dumplings at this time, as they looked like ears and it was seen as a way to stop your ears getting cold!  Soups made with meat and traditional Chinese medicine ingredients were also popular to nourish people through the winter, stemming no doubt from the fact that the supply of fresh vegetables would have been in decline at this time in many regions, and people would have moved to preserved and dried foods to sustain themselves through the winter. 

Dumplings are often eaten on Lidong

The beginning of winter can be a depressing time for some people, and it seems it may have been that way in the past too. Many poets wrote about Lidong, and the melancholy of the season is apparent in their work. Tang dynasty poet Li Bai wrote this poem, titled ‘Lidong’.

My writing brush is frozen;
New poems are hard to write.
Close to the stove, I heat my wine.
Drunk, I see the white moonlight on the ground;
Snow covers the whole country.

‘Li Bai Strolling’, by Liang Kai (1140–1210)

Of course, it’s not just ancient Chinese customs that herald the arrival of winter. Even in modern China, the arrival of winter is also marked by several distinct events.

Maybe you’ve noticed older people buying large quantities of cabbage and stacking them up outside their homes? This dates back to the time before refrigerators when cabbages were one of the few leafy vegetables that would keep over the cold, dry winter – the outer leaves may dry up but the inner core stays fresh.  On the outskirts of Beijing you might also see people drying corn kernels on roads and pavements.

Scenes such as this from 2006 are becoming increasingly rare in Beijing

In terms of practical signs, opening hours of many parks, tourist attractions and some smaller shops (such as fruit shops)  also change at this time, so check before you go! And of course, the big heating switch on is on November 15th – till then it’s time to hunker down in your thermals even inside! 

Have we missed any noticeable changes that occur when winter rolls around in the north of China? What traditions does your country have to welcome winter? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing your thoughts and insights! 

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys;; Taobao; Wikipedia

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