Lantern Festival is the first significant holiday after Spring Festival, falling on the 15th day of the first lunar month, on which night people gather in the street to watch various colorful lanterns. It is also called Yuanxiao Festival because every household eats yuanxiao, a rice ball stuffed with different fillings. This celebration was the last high time of the New Year holiday, marking the very end of all the bustling full of noise and excitement.
This most important program involved hanging out lanterns for appreciation. As a ritual, it probably originated from the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD) and was related to worshiping Taiyi, the god of Polaris. After Emperor Han Wudi accomplished the rite of offering sacrifice to the god Taiyi on Mount Tai, it was a rule to light torches from the foot to the top of the mountain. It was also said that this custom might be associated with Buddhism since lighting lanterns around the city was an activity that allowed monks and common people to associate the light with that of the sarira (which remained from the cremation of Buddha’s body). However, folklore said that lighting lanterns was to please the three divinities that were respectively in charge of affairs of the Heaven, Land and Water. When these three divinities descended to the world on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, people gathered in the streets and suburbs, and lighted lanterns to enjoy themselves. Later, this was called the “Yuan Xiao Festival” Lantern Festival.
Curfew was imposed in the cities in the Han Dynasty as in the Pre-Qin Era. It meant that residents were not allowed to leave home at night. When it came to Yuan Xiao Festival, however, the Emperor would lift the curfew and allow his people to revel until dawn, a tradition that remained the same in later dynasties. Illuminating lanterns for celebration became a custom between the South and -North Dynasties about a thousand years ago. The grand celebration of the Lantern Festival could be extremely impressive in periods of economic prosperity, as in the prime of the Tang and Song Dynasties, often seen as symbolic of a stable society.
The lantern show normally lasted three to five days, including the testing show before the fifteenth day of the first moon, the formal show on the fifteenth day, and the ending shown on the sixteenth day. There were exhibits of lanterns everywhere in China, together with other entertaining programs. Festive lanterns, framed with wood, bamboo, vine, and wheat straw, and made of paper, silk, gauze and glass, were designed for appreciation.
Ice lanterns could be made in North China. Exquisite lanterns assumed various shapes: plant and animal-shaped lanterns which were made into the shape of rabbit, butterfly, lotus, carp, peony, horse, and monkey; others were made in the shape of drums, ships and buildings, and so forth. Some designs were really ingenious. For example, the lantern named “Running Horse Lantern”, with beautiful pictures on its lantern shade, was equipped with a small windmill on the top of the lantern. When the candle was lit, the heated air inside the lantern shade would arise and push the windmill, which made the lantern shade revolve.
Dragon Lantern was quite famous too. It was a dragon-shaped straw frame wrapped by dark blue cloth, on which numerous lights were fastened, so seen from afar; it looked like a flying dragon, vivid and splendid. Chinese lanterns were a type of folk art reflecting the people’s wisdom and artisanship. In the meantime, the spectators could feel dazzled by various recreational programs such as watching vaudeville, guessing lantern riddles, walking on stilts, and appreciating the dragon lantern dance, lion dance, and land boat dance. Among these, the lion dance was one of the traditional folk dances of the Han people. The performer imitated the lion’s movement to drive away evil spirits because the lion was powerful, symbolizing bravery. There were two schools of lion dance, the north school, and the south school, different in dancing movement and costumes. The dragon lantern dance was a kind of blend of both the folk dance and the art of Chinese lanterns. Nine bamboo lanterns, plus a dragon head, were linked into a dragon, wrapped by a linen cloth, and propped up by poles. People wielded dragon lanterns as they walked. The light would be lit to look like a fire dragon at night. Besides the dances, there was the walk on stilts, another popular program. Performers played various historical or legendary figures with sticks bound to their legs to walk on, instead of using their feet. The length of the stick varied from thirty centimeters to two meters. Sometimes performers stood so high that they needed poles to keep their balance. Nowadays, these performances are still very popular in China.
Rituals for celebrating the Lantern Festival varied in different regions, but all over the country, people would eat Yuan Xiao, desserts made of sticky rice with fillings for the festival exclusively, which stood for perfect happiness.
Generally speaking, the Lantern Festival was the official mark of the end of the Spring Festival which lasts over 15 days in the first month. After that, people started their work in the New Year.
Lantern appreciation is related to Buddhism, which flourished in China during the Han Dynasty. To further popularize this religion, the emperor ordered to light lanterns in the imperial palace to pay respect for Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month. During the following dynasties such as Tang, Song, Ming and Qing, lighting lanterns gradually became a widely accepted tradition among the Chinese.
In modern society, when the festival comes, red lanterns are hanged everywhere in the street. In the parks, lanterns of various shapes and types appeal to a sea of visitors and they are amazed by the objects which so vividly embody traditional Chinese folklore.
Guessing Lantern Riddles
Dated back to the Song Dynasty, guessing riddles is viewed as a typical recreational activity of the Lantern Festival. Originally people write riddles on the lanterns, but now they are just written on pieces of paper and pasted on colorful lanterns for visitors to guess. If one has got the answer, he can pull the paper, reaching out to organizers to verify it. Gifts are presented to the correct guessers, with people from all walks of life enjoying them just because of their challenge to intellectuality.
As a part of the Lantern Festival, particularly in Northwestern China,Shehuo originated from Shaanxi operas, is a popular form of worship that comprises performances and parades such as the dragon and lion dances, yangko (a popular rural folk dance), and stilts walking.
Derived from the Three Kingdoms Period, the lion dance is a typically traditional art that adds unique fun to the Lantern Festival. The characteristics of the northern and southern lion dances are different, with the former paying more attention to skills and the latter focusing on animal resemblance. Usually, one person manipulates a small lion made of quilts resembling a real one, and with two persons acting like a big lion, one manages the head part and the other, the rest. Under the guidance of a director, the lions sometimes jump, leap, and do difficult acts such as walking on stilts.
According to Chinese ancient custom, the lion stands for power, boldness, and strength which is capable of protecting people. Therefore, by doing the lion dance, everyone prays for auspiciousness.
Stilts walking, another folk art, traces its origins to the Spring and Autumn period. Performers not only walk on stilts by binding them to their feet but also do some extremely difficult moves. As actors act as different characters like monks, clowns, and fishermen, the art entertains people with vivid and humorous performances.
Yuanxiao, or tangyuan, is a dumpling ball made of sticky rice flour stuffed with different fillings like sugar, rose petals, sesame, sweetened bean paste, and jujube paste. Eating yuanxiao is indispensable for people during the festival. The way to cook tangyuan can be various since it can be boiled, fried or steamed, and each has a unique taste. The reason why people consume Yuanxiao is because of its round shape which stands for reunion, harmony and happiness. During the night of the festival, family members sit together to taste yuanxiao and appreciate the full moon.