Traditions of the Lantern Festival
Hanging up colourful lanterns as celebrations
The Chinese hang up lanterns in various colours to decorate their homes, streets and venues. Many red lanterns are used to create lantern corridors and ceilings. Lanterns in other colours are also made up to form an amazing array of animals, structures, fruits, and plants, etc, suggesting prosperity and good wishes for the new year.
Puzzles could be written on the lanterns and prizes are won by those who crack them. In the past, poems and love songs were written down on lanterns as well and big chances were that one could meet his or her love through this puzzle fixing.
Glutinous rice balls (mandarin: Yuan Xiao)
Yuan stands for the start of the year, and Xiao means night in mandarin. Together they refer to a special delicacy to be shared on this day with family members. Roundness of the glutinous rice balls are seen as symbols for reunion.
The fillings inside the glutinous rice balls are either sweet or salty. Sweet fillings are usually made of sugar, Walnuts, sesame, osmanthus flowers, rose petals, sweetened tangerine peel, bean paste, or jujube paste. A single kind of ingredient or any combinations could do. The salty ones are traditionally filled with minced meat, vegetables or mixture of both.
Ways to make them differ between the northern and southern parts of China. The southern way is to shape dough into a ball, make a hole, insert the fillings, then close the hole and roll it round.
In North China, sweet or nonmeat stuffing is the usual ingredient. The fillings are pressed into hardened cores, dipped lightly in water and rolled in a flat basket containing dry glutinous rice flour. A layer of the flour sticks to the filling, which is then again dipped in water and rolled a second time in the rice flour. And so it goes, like rolling a snowball, until it has the preferred size.
Until the Sui Dynasty in the sixth century, Emperor Yangdi invited envoys from other countries to China to see the colorful lighted lanterns and enjoy the gala performances.
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. Emperor Chengzu 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 big event on the 15th day of the first lunar month throughout China. People enjoy the brightly lit night. Chengdu in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, for example, holds a lantern fair each year in the Cultural Park. During the Lantern Festival, the park is literally an ocean of lanterns! Many new designs attract countless visitors. The most eye-catching lantern is the Dragon Pole. This is a lantern in the shape of a golden dragon, spiraling up a 27-meter -high pole, spewing fireworks from its mouth. It is quite an impressive sight!
There are many different beliefs about the origin of the Lantern Festival. But one thing for sure is that it had something to do with religious worship.
One legend tells us that it was a time to worship Taiyi, the God of Heaven in ancient times. The belief was that the God of Heaven 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 Qinshihuang, the first emperor to unite the country, all subsequent emperors ordered splendid ceremonies each year. The emperor would ask Taiyi to bring favorable weather and good health to him and his people. Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty directed special attention to this event. In 104 BC, he proclaimed it one of the most important celebrations and the ceremony would last throughout the night.
Another legend associates the Lantern Festival with Taoism. Tianguan is the Taoist god responsible for good fortune. His birthday falls on the 15th 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.
The third story about the origin of the festival is like this. Buddhism first entered China during the reign of Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Han Dynasty. That was in the first century. However, it did not exert any great influence among the Chinese people. one day, Emperor Mingdi had a dream about a gold man in his palace. At the very moment when he was about to ask the mysterious figure who he was, the gold man suddenly rose to the sky and disappeared in the west. The next day, Emperor Mingdi sent a scholar to India on a pilgrimage to locate Buddhist scriptures. After journeying thousands of miles, the scholar finally returned with the scriptures. Emperor Mingdi ordered that a temple be built to house a statue of Buddha and serve as a repository for the scriptures. Followers believe that the power of Buddha can dispel darkness. So Emperor Mingdi ordered his subjects to display lighted lanterns during what was to become the Lantern Festival.