What is the Chinese summer solstice (夏至) and how is it celebrated?
How much do you know about the Chinese summer solstice holiday? In this article, we explore Chinese summer solstice traditions and common celebratory customs in China today.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
What is the Chinese summer solstice?
The Chinese summer solstice (夏至 Xiàzhì) refers to both an astronomical event and a traditional festival that celebrates the longest day of the year in China.
In astronomical terms, the summer solstice marks the beginning of summer and the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere. It also refers to a specific period of time starting when the sun reaches the celestial longitude of 90° and ends when it reaches the longitude of 105°, which roughly covers a 14-day time span.
To further understand this concept, we need to take a look at the Chinese calendar and its solar terms:
The 24 Solar Terms
Each solar year (岁 suì) on the Chinese calendar is split into “solar terms” (节气 jiéqì) which mark astronomical events such as equinoxes, solstices and other natural occurrences. Each solar term covers a set time period of time which today is usually around 15 days.
During the Shang dynasty (1,600 BCE - 1,046 BCE), the solar terms originally only consisted of four events, with the summer solstice being one of them (alongside the winter solstice and the spring and autumn equinox).
But during the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), the solar year was further split into 24 solar terms, which included other natural occurrences such as the start of autumn (立秋 lìqiū), the period marking the descent of frost (霜降 shuāngjiàng), and the period marking the coldest times during the winter (大寒 dàhán). Currently, the summer solstice is the 10th solar term.
A small misconception
Apart from being the longest day of the year, many people assume that the summer solstice is also the hottest day of the year, but this is not true. Instead, the summer solstice traditionally symbolises upcoming hot weather. The hottest day of the year is usually predicted to be 23 days after the solstice according to Chinese beliefs.
In China, the summer solstice is also largely associated with humidity and monsoon weather which includes thunder and very heavy rain, which sometimes causes major floods, especially in southern China.
How was the Chinese summer solstice traditionally celebrated?
In ancient times, the summer solstice was often referred to as the "Summer Festival" (夏节 Xiàjié) and "Summer Solstice Festival” (夏至节 Xiàzhìjié). Although some customs remain the same today (including those regarding food, which we will explore later), most ancient Chinese summer solstice celebrations were different from those of today.
Harvest celebrations and rituals
In ancient China, the summer solstice coincided with the harvest season for wheat, and so it was customary to engage in “earth worship” rituals during this special time.
Ancient rituals during the summer solstice included offering sacrifices, engaging in prayer in order to show gratitude for the harvest, and asking for a good and productive year free from natural disasters. As a result, the summer solstice became a holiday which included ancestral worship ceremonies.
Before the Qing dynasty, the summer solstice was such a special event that it was treated like a public holiday. Throughout various dynasties, it was common practice to provide a day off to officials and workers across the country so that they could spend the holiday with their families. In fact, according to some records, officials during the Song dynasty had three days off!
Nowadays, the summer solstice is not considered one of China’s public holidays, so it's business as usual in China on this day.
How is the Chinese summer solstice celebrated today?
The summer solstice is not really “celebrated” in modern Chinese society, and even if it is, it is usually low-key and done so in a way specific to the region in question. For example, in some provinces such as Zhejiang, you might find dragon boat racing going on during the summer solstice.
Apart from such traditional activities, there are also a wide variety of foods that are traditionally consumed on the summer solstice (and to some extent in summer in general). These days, the main focus of this festival is largely on food and health.
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Summer solstice foods
Achieving a balance between yin and yang is considered important in traditional Chinese culture. Recall that yang is used to refer to bright, active energy, while yin refers to dark, passive energy.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the summer solstice has the strongest yang energy of the year. Therefore, during the summer solstice, it is important to protect one’s yin and yang balance from being destabilized by too much yang.
As a result, a lot of emphasis is placed on foods that can help reduce the amount of internal heat (解暑 jiěshǔ) in the body to help provide protection against the hot weather.
Each region has its own customs. Here are some of the main dishes consumed during this time:
There is a popular saying throughout China: “冬至饺子夏至面” (dōngzhì jiǎozi xiàzhì miàn), which can be translated as, “winter solstice dumplings and summer solstice noodles.”
夏至面 (xiàzhì miàn; summer solstice noodles) is a collective reference to the huge variety of noodle dishes in Chinese cuisine. Although any type of noodle dish can be eaten during the solstice, cold sesame oil noodles (麻油凉拌面 máyóu liángbànmiàn) are especially popular, and usually accompanied by other cold dishes such as cold Chinese cabbage salad (凉拌大白菜 liángbàn dàbáicài) and smacked cucumber (拍黄瓜 pāi huángguā).
Not only are they delicious, but since they are cold, they are believed to help you keep your appetite despite the scorching summer heat.
Eating pea cake (豌豆糕 wāndòu gāo) is a custom mainly found in Nanjing. During the summer months, you will usually find a lot of family elders making homemade pea cakes to give to their younger family members. Pea cakes have a subtle sweet taste that offers a refreshing and light taste – perfect for the summer months.
Not only are they believed to relieve internal heat from the body, but they are also an appetizing symbol of auspiciousness.
Summer solstice eggs
A popular custom of Hunan province, summer solstice eggs (夏至蛋 xiàzhì dàn) are hard boiled first and then put into a jujube soup after the shell has been removed. According to traditional Chinese medicine, eating these eggs can help people “resist heat” (抵抗酷暑 dǐkàng kùshǔ).
清补凉汤 (qīngbǔliáng tāng - often referred to as “ching bo leung” in English) is a cold sweet soup popular in the Canton region which is specifically designed to alleviate heat.
The ingredients can vary depending on the region, but mainly include gorgon fruit, jujube fruit, lotus seeds, mung beans and Chinese pearl barley.
TCM health suggestions
Traditional Chinese medicine still plays an integral part in modern Chinese society, and during the summer solstice and the following summer months, everyone is advised to follow certain rules in order to maintain optimal health. We’ve outlined some of these traditional guidelines below.
During the summer solstice, people are traditionally encouraged to sleep late and wake up early, before taking an afternoon nap to energize themselves. It’s also said to be best to avoid being outdoors during the hottest hours of the day.
Apart from the traditional foods already mentioned, it is highly encouraged to eat lighter foods that are plain during the summer solstice period.
Bitter foods are especially recommended as they are believed to help decrease the heat in one’s body. Dishes that include bitter melon 苦瓜 (kǔguā) are popular at this time of year.
During the summer solstice, it’s recommended to only exercise early in the morning or late at night. Exercise should be light, with the most promoted activities being tai chi, walking, dancing and slow jogs.
Performing these activities in parks or near rivers where the air is fresh is encouraged. It’s best to avoid intense exercise since it can lead to excessive sweating, causing harm to one’s yin energy (阴气 yīnqì) and heat stroke.
Try it yourself
Now that you know all about the summer solstice in China, why not try some of the delicious traditional summer solstice dishes or put some TCM summer solstice lifestyle advice into practice the next time the summer solstice comes around?
Chinese summer solstice vocabulary
|梅雨||méiyǔ||monsoon, rainy season|
|中医||zhōngyī||Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)|
|解暑||jiě shǔ||to relieve heat|
|抵抗酷暑||dǐkàng kùshǔ||to resist heat|
|打个盹||dǎ gè dǔn||to take a nap|
|清淡||qīngdàn||light, plain (in taste)|
|苦瓜||kǔguā||bitter gourd melon|
|清补凉汤||qīngbǔliáng tāng||a type of clear tonic soup|
|夏至蛋||xiàzhì dàn||"summer solstice egg"|
|豌豆糕||wāndòu gāo||pea cake|
|拍黄瓜||pāi huángguā||smashed cucumber (Chinese dish)|
|麻油凉拌面||máyóu liángbànmiàn||sesame oil cold noodles (Chinese dish)|
|“冬至饺子夏至面”||dōngzhì jiǎozi xiàzhì miàn||"dumplings in winter noodles in summer" (a traditional saying)|