The Lantern Festival, also known as the Yuan Xiao Festival or Shang Yuan Festival in China, is celebrated on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. That first month is called the Yuan month, and in ancient times, people called the night Xiao; the 15th day is the first night to see a full moon in that lunar year. That is how the day earned its name as the Yuan Xiao Festival. It marks the end of the Spring Festival celebration and is also the first major festival after Chinese New Year.
Origin and History
Even in the Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE) period, about 2,000 years ago, the Lantern Festival ending the Chinese New Year festivities had already existed. However, the practice of appreciating lanterns during this festival actually originated in the Eastern Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) under Emperor Han Mingdi’s reign.
The Emperor was a big advocator of Buddhism. On the first lunar month’s 15th day, Chinese monks would light lanterns to worship the Buddha. When Mingdi heard of this custom, he officially decreed all temples and the palace to light lanterns for worshiping the Buddha on this night, and for all the people across the country to hang out lanterns as well. Year after year, this Buddhist festival came to grow into a grand folk festival, first from the royal palace to the people, and then from the Central China region to the whole of the country.
Celebration days and customs of the Lantern Festival gradually developed and expanded with the development of history. In the Han Dynasty, it was only a 1-day event. Later, the festival would last 3 days in the Tang Dynasty, and 5 days in the Song Dynasty. In the Ming Dynasty, the Lantern Festival came to its climax – it would last 10 days and included lighting lanterns from the 8th day to the 17th day on the first month in that lunar year. However, in the Qing Dynasty, the festival period was re-shortened to 4-5 days.
The Folklore Legend
Legends dealing with the origins of the Lantern Festival are abundant, but the most famous story speaks of a beautiful crane from heaven. In ancient times, there were once a large number of fierce and cruel animals in a village trying to hurt the people and livestock. The Chinese villagers then organized to kill these animals. Just then, a very beautiful crane from heaven flying to the earth got wrongly killed by one of the villagers.
This angered the Jade Emperor very much because the crane was his favorite creature. Thus, he ordered the destruction of the village by use of a storm of fire on the 15th day in the first lunar month. However, his kind-hearted daughter alerted the villagers ahead of time of the Jade Emperor’s plan since she wanted to save those innocent villagers’ lives.
The village’s population turned in turmoil when they heard the news. They had no idea what they could do to do to avoid the imminent disaster. At last, a wise old man figured out a solution. He told the villagers on the 14th day to the 16th day in the first lunar month to hang lit lanterns in every house and to explode firecrackers and fireworks. This would make a false appearance to the Jade Emperor of being burnt. That way, he would be deceived and might stop carrying out his plan. The people all agreed it was a good idea and did what the old man suggested.
On that 15th day in the first lunar month, the Jade Emperor’s troops sent down from heaven were ready to destroy the village but found the whole town was already ablaze. They thought the village had been burnt and returned to heaven to report the situation to the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor was very satisfied and decided not to continue with his retaliatory plan.
From that day on, the Chinese people have celebrated this event on the fateful 15th day in the first lunar year every year by bring out lit lanterns onto the street and exploding firecrackers and fireworks, creating a most animated and unforgettable atmosphere.
China is an incredibly vast country with a long history, so the customs associated with the Lantern Festival are quite different from region to region. Most place will host activities such as showcasing fantastic lit lantern displays, guessing lantern riddles, lion dancing, eating Yuan Xiao (sweet filled rice dumplings), and much more to celebrate this grand festival.
Every dynasty took the seeing and displaying of the colorful lanterns as a grand event. In the Sui Dynasty in the 6th century, Emperor Sui Tang Di would hold a magnificent gala performance for entertaining guests from abroad. According to the records of a history book about the Sui Tang Dynasty, during the Lantern Festival, there would be a stately carnival—the number of gala performers reached over 30,000 and more than 18,000 musicians could be heard, not to mention the throngs of visitors who came to see the marvelous lit lanterns on display.
By the beginning of the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, the lantern displays would last 3 days. The Emperor also lifted the curfew, allowing the people to enjoy the festive lanterns day and night. There are many Chinese poems that describe this happy scene.
However, the largest Lantern Festivals took place in the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. The Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ordered that the festival be celebrated from the 8th day to the 17th day in the first lunar month. During the event, countless vibrantly lit lanterns were hung and people exploded firecrackers and fireworks. Still, the most recognizable of today’s Lantern Festival traditions hail from after the Qing and final dynasty of China. After the Qing Dynasty, the palace stopped hosting lantern displays but they are still very popular throughout the country, and the celebration’s duration was re-shortened to 5 days.
2.Guessing Lantern Riddles
The Chinese people are very proud of their intelligence and ability to think abstractly, so guessing lantern riddles is another incredibly popular activity during the festival. The riddles often contain messages of good fortune, family, reunion, abundant harvest, prosperity, and love, and many of them originated from the Spring and Autumn Period. Then in the Southern Song Dynasty, people began to write the riddles on their lantern for visitors to guess. To date, cities across China hold such kinds of delightful activities to celebrate the Lantern Festival. Because they are fascinating and give people such inspiration, solving riddles activities are very popular with all ages and walks of life.
3.Eating Yuan Xiao
Among so many practices regarding the Lantern Festival, eating Yuan Xiao is the most simple and popular way to celebrate especially in today’s China. The first Yuan Xiao were made over 800 years ago. These glutinous rice balls are round and sweet, making for a most satisfying dessert and snack. Yuan Xiao can be cooked in various ways: boiled, fried, or steamed. The Chinese believe they contain the message of reunion and happiness.
colorful Yuan Xiao
Lion dances are an excellent example of folklore art. It is a very significant activity used to help celebrate festivals as well as other big days such as weddings. This custom has an extensive history of over 1,000 years, originated from the Three Kingdoms Period, and was prevalent in the Southern and Northern Dynasties.
A lion dance is generally performed by 3 people. One acts as the lion’s head, one plays the role of the lion’s body and rear foot, and one leads the lion. There are mainly 2 kinds of lion dances—tame dance, and Kung Fu dance. The tame lion dance shows the gentle character of the lions’ daily life, while the Kung Fu lion dance shows the lions’ brave and fierce side.
Chinese St. Valentine’s Day
In ancient China, the Lantern Festival is also known as the Chinese Valentine's Day, a day to celebrate love and affection between lovers. It was once customary for single people to carry lit lanterns on the street in hopes of finding their true love. The brightest lanterns symbolized good luck. However, as time passed, the festival no longer has an emphasis on such meaning.