Chinese Lantern Festival

While many people are gradually returning to the routines of their daily lives following the celebrations of the Spring Festival, others are busy preparing for the arrival of the Yuanxiao Festival.

Also called the Lantern Festival, this event is an important traditional occasion, falling on the 15th day of the first month on the lunar calendar.

People often refer to the festivities of this occasion as "Nao Yuanxiao", meaning to have a spree. People in general agree that this festival marks the real end of the New Year celebrations.

Affable shapes

"Yuan" means "first" while "xiao" means "night." With the two characters combined, the word refers to the first time that the full moon is seen in a New Year.

Similar to the Mid-Autumn Festival, this celebration is considered an evening for family reunions.

To highlight the festival, people are expected to eat small dumplings, also called "yuanxiao", that are made of glutinous rice flour with fillings that range from red bean paste to minced meat.

The symbolism of the dumplings' shape is more important than the taste. Their roundness is considered harmonious with the full moon of that night.

That these shapes are in agreement is regarded as auspicious, subtly indicating the reunion of the family and complete happiness.

Writer Shen Hongfei said the popular festival snack, yuanxiao, is closely connected with mankind's subconscious preference for round things such as Taichi or meat balls. The round shape is considered affable as it tries to remain on everyone's right side.

Despite the lack of a written history on yuanxiao, some scholars hold that the food began to emerge as early as the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), becoming popular during the period of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The popularity of yuanxiao during the festival has been reflected among folktales, one of the best-known is perhaps connected to Yuan Shikai (Yuan Shih-Kai, 1859-1916).

As one of the most significant political figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Yuan was a high military official in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). He turned against the Qing, succeeded Sun Yat-sen as the first president of the Republic and attempted to found a new imperial dynasty.

But people's love for yuanxiao aroused Yuan's suspicions, because a homonymous word for "yuanxiao" can mean "the destruction of the Yuan dynasty."

Such an evil omen became so annoying to ambitious Yuan that he issued a nationwide order requiring people to give up the term "yuanxiao" and use "tangyuan" instead. Many believe this is the origin of "tangyuan," an alternative name for the popular food.

Moment for lovers

But don't forget other traditional customs of the Yuanxiao Festival.

These include firework displays and riddle-guessing contests, but the most important observance is the lantern show, for which the occasion is also named the "Lantern Festival."

On the night of the festival, people are expected to go to the streets to appreciate varying sorts of elaborate and brightly decorated lanterns, an often unforgettable experience.

In the city of Harbin, fantastic lanterns are carved from large blocks of ice and gorgeously illuminated with coloured electric lights. Such ice lanterns will stand for people's appreciation until the ice melts away with the arrival of spring.

There are numerous theories about the origin of lantern shows. It's possible that the original purpose was to honour the Buddha, but a more interesting story attributes the creation to a homesick palace maid named Yuanxiao.

The girl told the Emperor that the God of Fire would set fire to the city unless he was appeased with a scene of burning. Accordingly, the Emperor ordered that firecrackers be set off and bright red lanterns hung throughout the streets.

The ensuing noise and confusion allowed Yuanxiao to slip home unnoticed for a brief family reunion.

The Lantern Festival is also a moment for lovers.

In the past, it was the one day of the year when a lady could come out chaperoned and be seen by eligible single men, and such a tradition implies a hint of romance in the air during the Lantern Festival celebrations.

Echoing the delicate romantic atmosphere, the poet Ouyang Xiu of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) wrote a poem entitled Sheng Cha Zi, as follows:

The flower market was bright as day.

The moon had climbed the willow tops.

At twilight end he came my way.

At this year's Lantern Festival

Moonlight and lamplight shine no less.

I have not seen my last year's love.

Tears wet the sleeves of my Spring dress.

In that way, along with the lion dances and festive food that characterize the Spring Festival, people find time on the following Lantern Festival or Yuanxiao Festival not only for a spree but also for a little romance.

(China Daily February 26, 2002)