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This article is about the Lantern Festival in China. For related festivals in the East Asian cultural sphere, see First Full Moon Festival.
|Lantern Festival celebrated in Tainan at night|
|Official name||Yuánxiāo jié (元宵節) / Shàngyuán jié (上元節)|
|Significance||Marks the end of the Chinese New Year|
|Observances||Flying of paper lanterns;|
Consumption of tangyuan
|Date||15th day of the 1st month (lunisolar year)|
|2022 date||15 February|
|2023 date||5 February|
|Related to||Chotrul Duchen (in Tibet)|
Daeboreum (in Korea)
Koshōgatsu (in Japan)
Magha Puja (in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos)
Tết Nguyên Tiêu (in Vietnam)
|Literal meaning||“Prime Night Festival”|
|Traditional Chinese||十五暝 / 上元|
|Literal meaning||“15th Night” / “Top Primary”|
Statues of mother and daughter celebrating the Lantern Festival. Xi’an
The Lantern Festival (traditional Chinese: 元宵節; simplified Chinese: 元宵节; pinyin: Yuánxiāo jié), also called Shangyuan Festival (traditional Chinese: 上元節; simplified Chinese: 上元节; pinyin: Shàngyuán jié), is a Chinese traditional festival celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunisolar Chinese calendar, during the full moon. Usually falling in February or early March on the Gregorian calendar, it marks the final day of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations. As early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–25 CE), it had become a festival with great significance.
During the Lantern Festival, children go out at night carrying paper lanterns and solve riddles on the lanterns (traditional Chinese: 猜燈謎; simplified Chinese: 猜灯谜; pinyin: cāidēngmí). In ancient times, the lanterns were fairly simple, and only the emperor and noblemen had large ornate ones. In modern times, lanterns have been embellished with many complex designs. For example, lanterns are now often made in the shape of animals. The lanterns can symbolize the people letting go of their past selves and getting new ones, which they will let go of the next year. The lanterns are almost always red to symbolize good fortune.
The festival acts as an Uposatha day on the Chinese calendar. It should not be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival; which is sometimes also known as the “Lantern Festival” in locations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Lantern Festivals have also become popular in Western countries, such as the Water Lantern Festival held in multiple locations in the United States. In London, the Magical Lantern Festival is held annually.
- 3See also
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There are several beliefs about the origin of the Lantern Festival. However, its roots trace back more than 2,000 years ago and is popularly linked to the reign of Emperor Ming of the Han dynasty at the time when Buddhism was growing in China. Emperor Ming, an advocate of Buddhism, noticed Buddhist monks would light lanterns in temples on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. As a result, he ordered all households, temples and the imperial palace to light lanterns on that evening. From there it developed into a folk custom. Another likely origin is the celebration of “the declining darkness of winter” and community’s ability to “move about at night with human-made light,” namely, lanterns. During the Han dynasty, the festival was connected to Ti Yin, the deity of the North Star.
Red lanterns, often seen during the festivities in China
Taiwan Lantern Festival
There is one legend that states that it was a time to worship Taiyi, the God of Heaven in ancient times. The belief was that Taiyi controlled the destiny of the human world. He had sixteen dragons at his beck and call and he decided when to inflict drought, storms, famine or pestilence upon human beings. Beginning with Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, all the emperors ordered splendid ceremonies each year. The emperor would ask Taiyi to bring favorable weather and good health to him and his people.
Another legend associates the Lantern Festival with Taoism. Tianguan is the Taoist deity responsible for good fortune. His birthday falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. It is said that Tianguan likes all types of entertainment, so followers prepare various kinds of activities during which they pray for good fortune.
Another legend associates with the Lantern Festival with an ancient warrior named Lan Moon, who led a rebellion against the tyrannical king in ancient China. He was killed in the storming of the city and the successful rebels commemorated the festival in his name.
Yet another common legend dealing with the origins of the Lantern Festival speaks of a beautiful crane that flew down to earth from heaven. After it landed on earth it was hunted and killed by some villagers. This angered the Jade Emperor in heaven because the crane was his favorite. So, he planned a storm of fire to destroy the village on the fifteenth lunar day. The Jade Emperor’s daughter warned the inhabitants of her father’s plan to destroy their village. The village was in turmoil because nobody knew how they could escape their imminent destruction. However, a wise man from another village suggested that every family should hang red lanterns around their houses, set up bonfires on the streets, and explode firecrackers on the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth lunar days. This would give the village the appearance of being on fire to the Jade Emperor. On the fifteenth lunar day, troops sent down from heaven whose mission was to destroy the village saw that the village was already ablaze, and returned to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor. Satisfied, the Jade Emperor decided not to burn down the village. From that day on, people celebrate the anniversary on the fifteenth lunar day every year by carrying lanterns on the streets and exploding firecrackers and fireworks.
Another legend about the origins of Lantern Festival involves a maid named Yuan-Xiao. In the Han dynasty, Dongfang Shuo was a favorite adviser of the emperor. One winter day, he went to the garden and heard a little girl crying and getting ready to jump into a well to commit suicide. Shuo stopped her and asked why. She said she was Yuan-Xiao, a maid in the emperor’s palace and that she never had a chance to see her family since she started working there. If she could not have the chance to show her filial piety in this life, she would rather die. Shuo promised to find a way to reunite her with her family. Shuo left the palace and set up a fortune-telling stall on the street. Due to his reputation, many people asked for their fortunes to be told but everyone got the same prediction – a calamitous fire on the fifteenth lunar day. The rumor spread quickly.
Everyone was worried about the future so they asked Dongfang Shuo for help. Dongfang Shuo said that on the thirteenth lunar day, the God of Fire would send a fairy in red riding a black horse to burn down the city. When people saw the fairy they should ask for her mercy. On that day, Yuan-Xiao pretended to be the red fairy. When people asked for her help, she said that she had a copy of a decree from the God of Fire that should be taken to the emperor. After she left, people went to the palace to show the emperor the decree which stated that the capital city would burn down on the fifteenth. When the emperor asked Dongfang Shuo for advice, the latter said that the God of Fire liked to eat tangyuan (sweet dumplings). Yuan-Xiao should cook tangyuan on the fifteenth lunar day and the emperor should order every house to prepare tangyuan to worship the God of Fire at the same time. Also, every house in the city should hang red lantern and explode fire crackers. Lastly, everyone in the palace and people outside the city should carry their lanterns on the street to watch the lantern decorations and fireworks. The Jade Emperor would be deceived and everyone would avoid the disastrous fire.
The emperor happily followed the plan. Lanterns were everywhere in the capital city on the night of the fifteenth lunar day and people were walking on the street and there were noisy firecrackers. It looked as if the entire city was on fire. Yuan-Xiao’s parents went into the palace to watch the lantern decorations and were reunited with their daughter. The emperor decreed that people should do the same thing every year. Since Yuan-Xiao cooked the best tangyuan, people called the day Yuan-Xiao Festival.
For each Festival celebrated, a switch in the Chinese Zodiac takes place. If this year is the year of the cow, the next will be the year of the tiger.
In the early days, young people were chaperoned in the streets in hopes of finding love. Matchmakers acted busily in hopes of pairing couples. The brightest lanterns were symbolic of good luck and hope. As time has passed, the festival no longer has such implications in most of Mainland China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong.
Tangyuan or Yuanxiao
Eaten during the Lantern Festival, tangyuan ‘湯圓’ (Southern China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia) or yuanxiao ‘元宵’ (Northern China) is a glutinous rice ball typically filled with sweet red bean paste, sesame paste, or peanut butter. Actually, tangyuan is different from yuanxiao due to different manual making and filling processes. It can be boiled, fried or steamed, each has independent taste. However, they are very similar in shape and taste, so most people do not distinguish them for convenience and consider them as the same thing. Chinese people believe that the round shape of the balls and the bowls in which they are served symbolize family togetherness, and that eating tangyuan or yuanxiao may bring the family harmony, happiness and luck in the new year.
6th century and afterwards
Lanterns in Qinhuai Lantern Fair
By the beginning of the Tang dynasty in the seventh century, the lantern displays would last three days. The emperor also lifted the curfew, allowing the people to enjoy the festive lanterns day and night. It is not difficult to find Chinese poems which describe this happy scene.
In the Song dynasty, the festival was celebrated for five days and the activities began to spread to many of the big cities in China. Colorful glass and even jade were used to make lanterns, with figures from folk tales painted on the lanterns.
However, the largest Lantern Festival celebration took place in the early part of the 15th century. The festivities continued for ten days. The Yongle Emperor had the downtown area set aside as a center for displaying the lanterns. Even today, there is a place in Beijing called Dengshikou. In Chinese, deng means lantern and shi is market. The area became a market where lanterns were sold during the day. In the evening, the local people would go there to see the beautiful lighted lanterns on display.
Today, the displaying of lanterns is still a major event on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month throughout China. Chengdu in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, for example, holds a lantern fair each year in Culture Park. During the Lantern Festival, the park is a virtual ocean of lanterns. Many new designs attract large numbers of visitors. The most eye-catching lantern is the Dragon Pole. This is a lantern in the shape of a golden dragon, spiraling up a 38-meter-high pole, spewing fireworks from its mouth. Cities such as Hangzhou and Shanghai have adopted electric and neon lanterns, which can often be seen beside their traditional paper or wooden counterparts. Another popular activity at this festival is guessing lantern riddles (which became part of the festival during the Tang dynasty). These often contain messages of good fortune, family reunion, abundant harvest, prosperity and love. Just like the pumpkin carved into jack-o’-lantern for Halloween in the western world, Asian parents sometime teach their children to carve empty the inner tubing of Oriental radish /mooli/ daikon into a Cai-Tou-Lantern (traditional Chinese: 營菜頭燈; simplified Chinese: 营菜头灯; pinyin: yíng cai tóu dēng) for the Festival.
This painting, by an imperial court painter in 1485, depicts the Chenghua Emperor enjoying the festivities with families in the Forbidden City during the traditional Chinese Lantern Festival. It includes acrobatic performances, operas, magic shows and setting off firecrackers.
Lion dance (舞獅), walk on stilts (踩高蹺), riddle games (猜燈謎), dragon dance (耍龍燈) are very popular during lantern festival.
The lantern riddle, according to Japanese scholars, became popular as early as the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126). The lantern riddles are done by a host blocking one side of the lantern and pasting riddles on the remaining three sides of the lanterns. Participants will guess the blocked side by solving the riddles, which is called “breaking/solving lantern riddles”. The theme of riddles can be drawn from classics, biographies, poetry, the various philosophers’ well-known stories and novels, proverbs, (the names of) all kinds of birds, animals, and insects, as well as flowers, grasses, vegetables, and herbs. Participants can tear off the riddle of the lantern and let the host verify their answers. Those who answer the correct answer can get a “riddle reward”, including ink, paper, writing brushes, ink slabs, fans, perfumed sachets, fruit, or eatables.