Yesterday we passed into the period known as Winter Commences, 立冬 (lì dōng). It will run until November 21st. Colder weather does start in northern China, but winter comes later in the south and thankfully here as well. The pentads for this solar term are ‘Water begins to freeze’ 水始冰, ‘The earth begins to harden’ 地始凍, and finally 雉入大水為蜃’ commonly translated “Pheasants enter the water and become clams’. However, the last character, which can be clams, is also used for waterspouts, and for a marine shapeshifting “monster”. This is another of the inexplicable phrases I find in Chinese lore that fascinate me and I wonder what the pheasants really became.
In ancient times in China, Winter Commences was an important festival as were the first days of the other seasons. Before the start of the festival, the emperor would have a ritual bath and refrain from eating meat. On the day, the emperor and an entourage of high officials would come to the suburbs of the capital to perform the ceremony of welcoming winter and hold a large sacrifice to heaven. Ordinary people still observe the day by eating special foods.
One of these are jiaozi, known to westerners as pot stickers or dumplings. I love dumplings and eat them all year round as do most Chinese these days. The reason they are eaten on Winter Commences day has to do with a legend of their origin. The famous physician of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (AD25-220), Zhang Zhongjing had retired to his home province of Henan in north central China and noticed the ears of many people affected by frostbite starting around Winter Commences. To remedy this he combined mutton, hot peppers and herbs and wrapped them in dough. To help the people understand their purpose was to warm the body and ward off the frostbite, he shaped the the little packets like ears.
In southeast China in the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong Taiwan, true winter comes later, but on the calendrical day people prepare stewed meats with Chinese herbs to fortify themselves for the cold to come. In Tianjin, on the northern coast, people eat dumplings stuffed with Chinese pumpkins, botanically known as Cucurbita moschata. They are similar to Japanese kabocha. In Wuxi on the central coast, the special food is tuanzi. It is also a dumpling made with rice flour paste as the outside and filling of sweet bean paste, ground pork or radish. They are eaten at other times as well and often colored green with addition of a wild herb. But those of the Winter Commences time are considered really good because the harvest has just been concluded and the rice is at its best.
This year Winter Commences just after the end of Daylight Savings Time on the 5th. It’s a double reminder to check your furnace and change the filter as well as check your smoke detectors. You don’t want to wait until it’s really cold and find out you need a service technician, at that point they are sure to be really busy and will probably charge more.
I have noticed that the cats are hungrier the past couple of weeks.. I think they are also fortifying themselves for the cold and absorbing the needed nutrition to grow their winter coats. I have been heavier food myself. I bought a big bag of beef bones at the farmer’s market to make bone broth to freeze for the winter. I make an onion free version for the cats, too. I will certainly have jiaozi to celebrate the start of winter. The cats will get the bit extra they need for a week or two and then go back to their regular, weight watching diet. The seasons continue their transition and it is easier and more satisfying to live in harmony with them, preparing ahead of time, eating appropriately and welcoming them as the emperor once did.