The solar term starting on November 22nd, which is the 20th out of 24 solar terms total, is called 小雪 (xiǎoxuě in Pinyin, meaning light or minor snow). 小雪 is when the temperatures start to drop to below 0°C, but the earth has not yet frozen solid. It is when it starts to snow in Northern China, but not huge quantities yet – hence, the „minor snow“. This solar term is a prime time for star-gazing (if there is no smog or light pollution clouding your view), as every night after 8pm, you get a stellar view of the Big Dipper and the Cassiopeia – the huge W adorning our night skies.
Like the other Chinese solar terms, 小雪 is also made up of three pentads – 虹藏不见 (hóng cáng bú jiàn in Pinyin), 天气上升地气下降 (tiān qì shàng shēng dì qì xià jiàng in Pinyin), and 閉塞而成冬 (bì sāi ér chéng dōng in Pinyin).
The first of these pentads, 虹藏不见 translates as something like “rainbows are hiding from view”. In the past, the Chinese believed that rainbows arose when the different energy flows of yin and yang started to mix. Since the winter brings an excess of yin (the cold or dark) energy, there was no more chance of seeing rainbows in the sky.
The second of the pentads making up 小雪 is 天气上升地气下降, which can be rendered in English as “the qi of the sky ascends and the qi of the earth descends”. To understand the name of this pentad, one has to have a closer look at what Qi is. The Chinese concept of Qi (meaning “breath (of life)” or simply “energy” is what makes up all things on earth. The energy or Qi that is associated with the sky is called Yang. It is considered to be male, as in old Chinese philosophy the sky is the father, i.e. male. The energy associated with the earth is called Yin, and it is female, as the earth is the mother in Chinese philosophy, as it produces and creates new life. So when the Chinese name of the second pentad of “Minor Snow” says that the Yang energy goes up to the sky and the Yin energy goes down into the earth, it means that the energy is returning to its proper place.
The last of this solar term’s pentads is called 閉塞而成冬, whose English meaning is something like “ending and motionlessness create the winter”. It symbolizes that once the earth and the sky, the yin and the yang, have stopped mixing, winter with nature in its dormant state, really starts.
In the Dongbei region, it is tradition to eat Mongolian style hot pot on the beginning of this solar term. So grab your friends and head to a Hot Pot restaurant of your choice to celebrate the coming of the minor snow!
Other traditions for minor snow are eating soup (all over China, but particularly in the North), making preserved pork (the Chinese answer to bacon – delicious!), eating glutinous rice cakes, and making pickled vegetables. That last tradition is mostly observed in Nanjing and some other parts of Jiangsu Province.