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    In Winter, 9 Is the Magic Number

    China’s ‘counting the nine’ concept emerged almost 1,500 years ago and remains a gem of its traditional folk culture.
    Jan 06, 2024#history#arts

    The winter solstice held a special place in the minds of those living in ancient China: As the shortest day of the year, it was when the cold, negative yin energy was at its highest. The days that followed, although still chilly, gradually brought warm, positive yang energy, signaling the approaching spring.

    Counting down the days of winter was an important pastime, particularly in northern regions, where the season can feel exceptionally long. As such, a folk method emerged known as shujiu, or “counting the nine,” which separates winter into nine intervals of nine days. In addition to having a practical use for farmers, the tradition provided a much-needed form of entertainment and proved to be a wellspring of creativity.

    In this traditional calendar, which starts on the winter solstice and is made up of nine nine-day intervals, the third and fourth are expected to see the lowest temperatures. And when all 81 days have passed, the spring flowers should be ready to blossom.

    But why nine? In the decimal system, nine is the largest single digit before a “reset,” and ancient Chinese regarded it as an important number symbolizing completion. Therefore, the “nine nines” concept reflected the cyclical nature of renewal.

    The old folk song “Counting the Nine” tells the story from an agricultural perspective, saying how “we dare not hold out our hands” in the harsh cold of the first and second nines, while the “rivers thaw” in the seventh, and the land fills with plows and oxen in the final nine.

    There’s also a similar song among the fishing community that basically translates as:

    Dock the boat and return home in the first and second nines;
    Stay locked up at home like a prisoner in the third and fourth;
    Visit relatives and drink wine in the fifth and sixth;
    Repair the boat and prepare the hooks in the seventh and eighth;
    Set out to sea in the ninth.

    The history of “counting the nine” can be traced back as early as the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589). However, it wasn’t until the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) that the “Nine Times Nine to Dispel the Cold” countdown calendar emerged. Still used to this day, it is depicted in three traditional styles: as plum blossoms, Chinese text, or circles.

    The initial iteration of the calendar, devised by a group of intellectuals living in northern China, was a drawing of nine plum blossoms, each with nine petals. Every day, one of these 81 petals would be painted red. As time passed, the flowers in the picture would gradually bloom.

    The concept quickly spread in folklore and gained popularity. The Yuan poet Yang Yunfu wrote, “Counting the ‘Nine Times Nine to Dispel the Cold’ picture on the window, the cold dissipates and the warmth of spring arrives. All the plum blossoms are colored, no white space remains. Today I see a red apricot tree.”

    The pictures were widely available for sale in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, with some versions including the song lyrics for “Counting the Nine.”

    The rubbing of a carving from the late 1400s is considered the oldest example of the plum blossom calendar. Surrounding a vase filled with blossoms are scenes representing the nine intervals, each paired with a poem, while there is also a postscript from Zhu Chenglin, a member of the Ming imperial clan.

    The text version of the calendar traditionally carries the phrase “tingqian chuiliu zhenzhong dai chunfeng” in Chinese — with each of the characters having nine strokes — which roughly means “looking forward to the spring.” An early example of this style is the one handwritten by the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1821-1850) in the Qing dynasty, which was displayed in the palace. At the base, in much smaller type, is the sentence “guancheng chunman,” or “news of spring emerges from the tip of a brush.”

    A slightly more complicated version of the countdown calendar involves 81 circles separated into nine sections. Each circle is colored in based on the weather that day, such as blue for rainy, yellow for windy, and red for sunny. Alternatively, if using only one color, different sections of the circle can be marked to record the conditions. By the end of the nine nines, farmers effectively had a seasonal weather chart that could help them determine when to start harvesting their crops.

    An example of the circle style is a classic Lunar New Year painting. In the image, five children are arranged top to toe, representing the cycle of life, and 81 circles are arranged on strappings around their bodies.

    Beyond their practical use, the “Nine Times Nine to Dispel the Cold” calendars simply provided families in agricultural communities something to do in the months when it was too cold to venture outdoors, particularly for those in the north. They brought color and warmth on frosty winter days and served as a tool for teaching small children to write, draw, and keep count.

    Encompassing traditional arts and craft, the nine nines concept remains a gem of Chinese folk culture.

    Translator: Chu Jing Her; editors: Ding Yining and Hao Qibao.

    (Header and in-text images: All the images are from the public domain, collected and provided by Sheng Wenqiang unless otherwise noted.)