Chinese Lantern Festival

  • Celebrated: Feb. 14 
  • Location: China
colored lights park

Lantern Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the first month of traditional Chinese calendar.

As the first important festival after the traditional Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), it is also the first night to see a full moon, and it marks the end of the two-week New Year holiday period. During Lantern Festival, people get together to celebrate the beginning of spring by watching lanterns, fireworks and eating Yuanxiao (sweet stuffed dumplings made of glutinous rice flour served in soup).

Origin and History

Lantern Festival is one of China's important traditional festivals, which can be traced back to more than 2,000 years ago. In the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), Emperor Hanmingdi was an advocate of Buddhism. He heard that some monks lit lanterns in the temples to show respect to Buddha on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Therefore, He ordered that all the temples, households and royal palaces should light lanterns on that evening. This Buddhist etiquette gradually formed a grand festival among people.

colored lights park

There is another saying that the Lantern Festival was originated from Torch Festival. During the Han Dynasty, people in rural areas held torches to scare away beasts and insects to reduce insect damages and pray for a good harvest. Nowadays during Lantern Festival, people in some areas of Southwest China still have the tradition of lighting up torches made of branches or reeds, and dance in groups on the fields or grain-sunning grounds. Lantern Festival became very popular during the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties about 1,000 years ago. According historical records, during the festival, hundreds of thousands of singers and dancers participated in the celebration which lasted from morning till dawn.

The customs and activities on Lantern Festival change with the development of history and society. Take the duration of the Lantern Festival for example: there was only 1 day in the Han Dynasty, then 3 days in the Tang Dynasty, and 5 days in the Song Dynasty. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), people celebrated the Lantern Festival from the 8th to the 17th day of the 1st lunar month. In the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911), the festival was narrowed to 4-5 days, but more celebrating activities such as lion dance, dragon dance and walking stilts were added.

Legend about the Lantern

Legend has it that long time ago, there were many fierce wild beasts and birds that greatly affected local people's lives and safety. In order to protect themselves, people had to kill those wild animals. One day, a sacred bird in heaven accidentally got lost and fell on the mortal world. However, an ignorant hunter thought the bird was kind of fierce animal and killed it. The heaven emperor was very angry and ordered his soldiers to set fire and burn everything on the fifteenth day of the first month. The daughter of heaven emperor was very kind and did not want it to happen. So she secretly came to the mortal world and informed the people. People were scared and tried to think of a solution. An old man came up with an idea. He told every family should light up lanterns and fireworks on the 14th, 15th and 16th day of the 1st lunar month. Maybe the heaven emperor would think that everything has been burned out.

colored lights park

Everyone agreed and was busy preparing for that. On the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, the heaven emperor looked down, and there was red fire and thundering cracks everywhere, for three nights. He thought the folks had been punished; therefore people got to keep their lives and property. From then on, people light up lanterns and fireworks on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, in order to celebrate the success.

Customs

China is a vast country with a long history and diverse cultures, so the customs and activities vary in different areas. Among them, eating Yuanxiao, watch lanterns, guess lantern riddles, lion dance and dragon dance are the most important and prevalent ones. Hangzhou, the political center of the Southern Song Dynasty), witnessed the flourish of making and guessing lantern riddles during people's appreciation of lanterns. People wrote riddles on paper notes and pasted upon the colorful lanterns. If visitors think they have the right answers to the riddles, they could pull the paper out and went to the lantern owners to check their answer. If they were right, they would get small gifts. As riddle guessing is interesting and informative, it has become popular among all social strata.

Guessing the Lantern Riddles

chinese-lantern Guessing the lantern riddles is one of the most popular activities of the Lantern Festival.

Guessing the lantern riddles, also known as playing lantern riddles, is one of the most important and popular activities of the Lantern Festival. The lantern riddles, originating from common riddles, emerged in the Southern Song Dynasty (960-1279), whose capital, Lin'an (today's Hangzhou, the political center of the Southern Song Dynasty), witnessed the flourish of making and guessing lantern riddles during people's appreciation of lanterns. People wrote riddles on paper notes and pasted upon the colorful lanterns. If visitors think they have the right answers to the riddles, they could pull the paper out and went to the lantern owners to check their answer. If they were right, they would get small gifts. As riddle guessing is interesting and informative, it has become popular among all social strata.

Lighting and Watching Lanterns

Lighting and Watching lanterns, the main activity of Lantern Festival, was originated during the reign of Emperor Hanmingdi (58-75 BC). The birth of lanterns is related with the introduction of Buddhism in Han Dynasty. It is said that when Emperor Hanmingdi was going to promote Buddhism, one of the famous saints at that time, Cai Yin, went back from India with Buddhist doctrines and scriptures, and told Emperor that on the fifteenth day of the first month every year the ancient India would hold celebration to worship Buddha. Emperor Hanmingdi, therefore, ordered that lanterns be lighted in palaces and temples to show respect to Buddhism. Later Emperor Hanwendi (203-157 BC) declared the fifteenth day of the first month of traditional Chinese calendar as the Lantern Festival. The custom of lighting lanterns, therefore, was passed to the common people.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the most prosperous period in Chinese history with its developed economy, flourishing culture and powerful national force, Lantern Festival was celebrated with more extravaganza and much larger scale. It is recorded that the Lantern Festival, also called ‘meeting of lamp shadow’ at that time, became a country-wide carnival, which gave the festival two other names, "lantern meeting" and "Jan. 15th lantern meeting". The variety, quantity and quality of lanterns in the Tang Dynasty far surpassed that in the past dynasties, with their design and ornamentation embodying the grandeur and fascination of Tang Dynasty. It is said that during the reign of Emperor Tangxuanzong (685--762), Chang'an City (today's Xi'an City), the capital of the Tang Dynasty, watched fifty thousand lanterns of various kinds lighted. And in particular the Emperor ordered to construct a 150-feet-tall lantern tower with 20 rooms.

Lanterns stand for brightness and birth in Taiwan; lighting lanterns, therefore, means illuminating future and giving birth. Therefore women who want to be pregnant would walk under a hanging lantern praying for a child.

Lion Dance

the spring festival

Lion dance is one of the most outstanding traditional folk arts in China. During the Lantern Festival or other festive occasions, people often organize lion dance to celebrate, which is believed to scare away the evil and bring in luck. The lion dance has a long history: it was originated from the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280) and became popular during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589).

Ancient people regarded lion as the symbol of bravery and strength, and thought that it could drive away the evil and protect human beings and livestock. Therefore, performing lion dance in the Lantern Festival and other big celebrations became a custom by which people are able to pray for good fortune and safety. Lion dance, nowadays, has been spread to many other countries in the world with overseas Chinese, and it is quite popular in countries like Malaysia and Singapore. In many Chinese communities of Europe and America, Chinese people would launch lion dances or dragon dances to celebrate every spring festival and other important events.

Eating Yuanxiao or Tangyuan

Another indispensable custom of Lantern Festival, in addition to entertainment and beautiful lanterns, is eating Yuanxiao or Tangyuan (sweet stuffed dumplings made of glutinous rice flour served in soup). It is believed that the custom of eating Yuanxiao originated during the Song Dynasty, and then became popular during the Ming and Qing periods. Yuanxiao or Tangyuan, is made of glutinous rice flour, and different fillings are stuffed inside, either sweet or salty, such as white sugar, brown sugar, sesame, walnuts, dried osmanthus flowers, rose petals, sweetened tangerine peel, bean paste, and jujube paste, or any combination of two or three ingredients. Yuanxiao can be either boiled, fried, or steamed.

In addition, the Chinese name of Tangyuan is pronounced as similarly as Tuanyuan, which means the whole family gathering together happily. So Yuanxiao is a symbol of staying together, because roundness has the connotation of wholeness and togetherness in Chinese culture. In this way, people express their best wish for their family and their future life.

Walking to cure diseases (Zou Baibu)

"Walking to cure diseases" is an important activity during the Lantern Festival in some areas of North China to pray for health. At night, women dressed in their best holiday costumes gather together to have a walk together, and they go across every bridge they encounter. They walk for a long time, sometimes till midnight. This custom was originated from the Ming Dynasty a thousand years ago in North China, and is believed to be praying for health. Normally it is held on the 15th or the 16th day of the first month on traditional Chinese calendar. 

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