The origins and customs surrounding China’s Lantern Festival

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/9 18:58:39

Clockwise from right: <em>Tangyuan</em><em>Tangyuan</em> shaped like Mahjong tilesStreet vendors sell <em>yuanxiao</em>.Photos: IC

Tangyuan Photo: IC

Clockwise from right: <em>Tangyuan</em><em>Tangyuan</em> shaped like Mahjong tilesStreet vendors sell <em>yuanxiao</em>.Photos: IC

Tangyuan shaped like Mahjong tiles Photo: IC

Clockwise from right: <em>Tangyuan</em><em>Tangyuan</em> shaped like Mahjong tilesStreet vendors sell <em>yuanxiao</em>.Photos: IC

Street vendors sell yuanxiao. Photo: IC

This Saturday is the Lantern Festival, or Yuan Xiao Festival. Celebrated on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese calendar, it marks the last day of festivities surrounding the Chinese New Year.

In Chinese, one of the meaning of yuan (元) is "first," while xiao (宵)means "night," thus Yuan Xiao is celebrated on the first full moon of the Chinese New Year.

In 2008, the festival was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage by the State Council, China's cabinet.


As a religious event, the Yuan Xiao Festival dates back to more than 2,000 years ago.

During the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-AD25), Emperor Wen officially set the 15th day of first month of the Chinese calendar as the Yuan Xiao Festival. Originally the holiday involved sacrifices to Tai Yi, the head god of the Chinese pantheon at the time.

As for when lanterns began to become associated with the holiday, history is unsure.

According to one explanation, the Yuan Xiao Festival's evolution into a lantern festival is closely related to Buddhism. During the reign of Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) Buddhism began to spread from India throughout China. Emperor Ming had heard that Buddhist monks would pray to Buddhist relics on the 15th day of first lunar month, lighting lanterns to pay respect to the Buddha. Taking a liking to the custom, he ordered that lanterns be lit throughout the imperial palace and all the temples during Yuan Xiao. Common people also began hanging lanterns outside their homes on that night and gradually this religious festival grew into a folk custom.

Another explanation is tied to Taoism, in which the holiday is known as the Shangyuan Festival. The 15th day of the first lunar month is the birthday of Tianguan, the god of the sky. Legend has it that Tianguan was fond of entertainment, so people would light colorful lanterns on his birthday to amuse him.

Over the centuries, the Lantern Festival went through numerous changes during different dynasties. The festival period was extended to three days during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), to five days during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and further extended to 10 days during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

During the festival, people attend fairs during the day and appreciate colorfully made lanterns at night. It is one of the busiest events that are part of the overall Spring Festival holidays. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) acrobatic performances such as the Dragon Dance, the Lion Dance and stilt walking were added.

Festival treats

Tangyuan and yuanxiao are balls of glutinous rice flour often made with different fillings eaten during the Lantern Festival. Tangyuan and yuanxiao are very similar to each other, the major difference being that tangyuan fillings tend to be softer and watery, while yuanxiao fillings tend to be more solid. Tangyuan are more often eaten in the southern parts of China, while northern Chinese tend to prefer yuanxiao.

The yuan (round, circle) in tangyuan refers to the shape of the balls, but in Chinese a circle also represents the idea of completeness, so when it comes to this holiday it also represents a family coming together.

Eating these glutinous rice balls during the Lantern Festival first began during the Song Dynasty and eventually became very popular during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Fillings are often sweet ingredients such as sugar, jujube paste, red bean paste, or peanut butter. People in some regions also use meat and vegetables for their fillings.

Nowadays, these snacks have grown past their festival-only roots to become a full season dessert.

Finding love

The Lantern Festival is not just about light, but also love. In ancient times it was an annual romantic feast for single men and women that provided them a precious opportunity to meet face at a time when young women were not allowed to move freely out in public except during festivals.

At the time, some young unmarried people headed to Lantern Festival locations in hopes of finding a partner, while matchmakers busied themselves pairing couples together at the event.

A popular folk belief in Taiwan says that a girl who steals vegetables from a farm on the night of the Lantern Festival is sure to find a good husband and have the perfect family.

In literature, the night of the Lantern Festival is also tightly tied to romantic themes. Many traditional Chinese operas often have their characters fall in love at first sight or profess their love for one another during the Lantern Festival.

Xin Qiji, a Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) poet, describes a man who finds love during the Lantern Festival in what has become one of the most well-known love poems in Chinese history:

"A thousand times I've looked for her in vain/ when all at once I turn my head/ I find her there where lantern light dimly shed."

Newspaper headline: Lighting up the new year


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