Not to be confused with Thailand's Floating Lantern Festival
11 February 2017: Today is China’s Spring Lantern Festival 2017, marking the end of Chinese New Year, but what exactly does the festival involve?
China’s Spring Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the first Lunar month, marking the end of Chinese New Year AKA Spring Festival. Typically, the festival falls on a day in February or March in the Gregorian calendar. The Spring Lantern Festival is not to be confused with Thailand’s Yi Peng Lantern Festival that occurs in November.
The Spring Lantern Festival AKA Lantern Festival dates back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25). During ancient times, children would carry paper lanterns to the temples and solve riddles within the lanterns. Back then, only the emperor and noblemen had large lanterns.
Nowadays, lanterns are presented in an array embellishments and designs. The lanterns symbolize letting go of their past selves and embracing new ones. Often coloured red, the lanterns are a symbol of good fortune.
The origin of the Spring Lantern Festival comes in a number of different forms. Whilst it cannot be determined exactly which story is the definitive origin of the festival, there are a few strong contenders.
The tale of Tiayi
One story relates to the ‘declining darkness of winter’, involving the deity of the North Star, Ti Yin. According to legend, in Chinese ancient times the God of heaven, Taiyi, was believed to control the destiny of the human world. Armed with sixteen dragons, he decided when and where to inflict droughts, storms, famines and other disasters upon the world. As a result, the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, and every emperor since has arranged for annual ceremonies in Taiyi’s honour.
In 104 BCE, Wudi from the Han Dynasty proclaimed the ceremony to be one of the most important celebrations and as a result should run throughout the night.
Other stories of the Lantern Festival’s origin stems from Taoism. The Taoist god, Tianguan, who is responsible for good fortune has a birthday that falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Tianguan was known to appreciate entertainment, so celebrations involving various activities were arranged.
The Jade Emperor story
A different but common legend involves a beautiful crane that flew from heaven to earth. Landing on earth, it was hunted and killed by villagers. Angered by this, the Jade Emperor in heaven planned a storm to destroy the village on the fifteenth lunar day. However, the Jade Emperor’s daughter warned the villages’ inhabitants of the emperor’s plan. A wise man from another village suggested that each family should hang red lanterns around the houses, set up bonfires on the streets and to explode firecrackers on the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth days of the lunar calendar. The idea was to give the village the appearance of being on fire to the Jade Emperor. On the fifteenth day, the emperor’s troops saw to the village to destroy it, but seeing it already ablaze, returned back to heaven instead. Thinking the village was already burning down, the Jade Emperor did not go through with his own destruction. Since, people celebrate the fifteenth lunar day each year with lanterns, firecrackers and fireworks to commemorate the occasion.
Emperor Hanmingdi’s Buddhism story
Another Spring Lantern Festival legend involves Buddhism. Emperor Hanmingdi of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) heard that monks would light lanterns in temples to show respect to Buddha on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. The Emperor then ordered all temples, households and royal places to do the same. The Buddhist custom would gradually evolve into a grand festival.
The story of Yuan Xiao
One of the most popular Spring Lantern Festival stories involves a young girl named Yuan Xiao, a resident of the palace during the Han Dynasty. The legend has it that an advisor to the emperor found Yuan Xiao crying and preparing to kill herself by jumping into a well. She had been suicidal as a result of her work at the palace preventing her from seeing her family. The advisor then concocted a cunning plan. After setting up a fortune-telling stall on the street, the advisor would tell everyone that a fire would destroy the kingdom on the fifteenth lunar day. He advised that people should ask for mercy from the God of Fire. On the fifteenth day, he arranged for Yuan Xiao to dress up as the fairy.
The emperor, unaware of the advisor’s plan, asked him for help. The advisor said that each household should cook and offer the God of Fire’s favourite food – glutinous rice balls (汤圆 tangyuan). He also advised that they should hang red lanterns and set off firecrackers to make it look like the city was on fire. Thinking that they had averted the danger predicted by the advisor, the town was delighted. Yuan Xiao’s parents visited the palace to see the lanterns and were reunited with their daughter. The emperor then declared a celebration every year and that because Yuan Xiao had prepared the best tangyuan, the holiday would be named after her – the Yuan Xiao Festival.
Predictably, lighting lanterns is the main activity of the Spring Lantern Festival. These lanterns come in a variety of shapes and sizes representing all kinds of animals. In China, these lanterns are seen in households, shopping malls, parks and streets.
In Taiwanese, the word for lantern (灯 dēng) is pronounced in a similar way to the word for a new born baby boy, (丁 dīng). Thereby, lighting a lantern signifies illuminating the future and giving birth. When lighting the lanterns, people pray for prosperous futures and good health for themselves anad their families.
Recently, modern Chinese cities such as Hangzhou and Shanghai have adopted electric and neon lanterns, which can often be seen beside their traditional paper or wooden counterparts.
Guessing Lantern Riddles
Guessing and solving riddles found in lanterns began in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Lantern owners write the riddles on paper notes for crowds to solve. If someone thinks they can solve the riddle, they pull out the riddle and check if they have the right answer with the lantern owner. If they guess right, a small prize is usually awarded.
Whilst not unique to Spring Lantern Festival, the lion dance is almost synonymous with Chinese festivals and celebrations. Dating back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), people regard the lion as a symbol of bravery and strength. It was also believed that the lion would protect people and their livestock from evil. The lion dance is so popular that it has been exported to the rest of the world and is often seen during Chiense celebrations in the west.
Eating Tangyuan (Yuanxiao)
As mentioned above, tangyuan (汤圆) are small round dumplings made of glutinous rice flour. The dumplings contain different fillings, often comprising of white sugar, brown sugar, sesame seeds, peanuts, walnuts, rose petals, bean paste, and jujube paste, or any combination of two or three ingredients. In Mandarin, Tangyuan sounds similar to tuanyuan (团圆), which means togetherness, family and happiness.
During the Spring Lantern Festival, tangyuan are called yuanxiao (from the Yuan Xiao story above) and are boiled, fried or steamed. Chinese people believe that round shape of the dumplings and their bowls symbolize wholeness and togetherness.
It is believed that the custom of eating tangyuan originated during the Song Dynasty, and became popular during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) periods.