The Lantern Festival is an important part of the Spring Festival. It marks the end of the new year's celebration.
Today is the Chinese Lantern Festival. It falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. This is the first day of the lunar new year with a full moon which symbolizes unity and perfection. The Lantern Festival is an important part of the Spring Festival. It marks the end of the new year's celebration.
Chinese people celebrate the festival by displaying lanterns and eating tangyuan, dumpling balls made of sticky rice flour.
There are many different stories about the origin of the Lantern Festival. Many of them have something to do with religious worship.
One legend has it that the festival was a time to worship Taiyi, the God of Heaven in ancient times. The God of Heaven controlled the destiny of the human world. He had 16 dragons at his beck and call and made decisions about when to inflict droughts, storms, famines or pestilence on earth.
Since the reign of Qinshihuang, the first emperor to unite China some 2,200 years ago, emperors held grand ceremonies each year to worship Taiyi. One hundred years later, Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty paid even greater attention to the event. In 104 B.C., he proclaimed it one of the most important festivals in China.
Legend has it that 2,100 years ago, there was a maid named Yuanxiao in the imperial palace of Emperor Wudi. She was not allowed to take a holiday to see her parents at home on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Yuanxiao was distraught and said she'd rather die than not be able to go home.
To help Yuanxiao fulfill her filial duty to visit her parents, the great scholar Dongfang Shuo came up with an idea. He told Emperor Wudi that Taiyi, the highest god in heaven, had ordered the God of Fire to burn down the capital city of Chang'an on the sixteenth day of the first lunar month. Emperor Wudi was eager to find a way to save his city. Dongfang Shuo replied that the God of Fire loved red lanterns more than anything else. He advised that the streets be filled with red lanterns, and the emperor, the royal family and all the court officials would be on the streets to watch the lantern displays. Fascinated by the lanterns, the Fire God would not implement the plan so that the disaster could be avoided.
The emperor followed Dongfang's advice. While everyone was out viewing the lanterns, Yuanxiao was able to sneak out of the royal palace and be reunited with her family.
There is another legend concerning the origin of Lantern Festival.
Once upon a time, a celestial swan came down from heaven to the mortal world where it was shot down by a hunter. The Jade Emperor, the highest god in heaven, vowed to avenge the swan's murder. The Jade Emperor started making plans to send a troop of celestial soldiers to earth on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. He ordered all humans and animals on earth be burned.
His decision caught the attention of many other celestial beings who disagreed with this course of action. They risked their lives to warn people on earth about the disaster.
As a result, around the fifteenth day of the first month, every family hung red lanterns outside their doors and set off firecrackers and fireworks to make it seem as though their homes were already on fire. By successfully tricking the Jade Emperor in this manner, humanity was saved from extermination.
Historians discovered that later after Buddhism was introduced to China from India in the first century, the emperors held the Lantern Festivals to honor Buddha, adding yet another level of significance to the festival.
History books recorded that in the Sui Dynasty in the sixth century, Emperor Yangdi invited envoys from other countries to China to see lantern displays and enjoy gala performances.
By the beginning of the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century, Lantern Festival celebrations lasted three days. A nighttime curfew was lifted during the festival for people to enjoy the lanterns after dark. Many classic poems written during the Tang Dynasty describe the festival.
In the following Song Dynasty, the Lantern Festival was celebrated for five days in the capital city, and the tradition began spreading to many other big cities in China.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties more than 100 years ago, lanterns became fancier with some made of colored glass and even jade, and finely engraved with folktale figures and flowers patterns.
But the largest Lantern Festival celebration took place in the early part of the 15th century in Beijing. The festivities continued for 10 days. Emperor Chengzu of the Ming Dynasty designated a large part of the downtown area for displaying lanterns. This part of the downtown area is the present-day Dengshikou, meaning lantern market.
Today, lantern shows are a major part of Chinese Spring Festival celebrations and held around the country.
In Chengdu in southwest China's Sichuan Province, for example, a lantern show is held each year in the Cultural Park. This year's show kicked off before Chinese New Year's Day and runs until March 10th. In an ocean of lanterns, many new designs attract visitors from home and abroad. The most eye-catching lantern is in the shape of a dragon, which spirals up a 27-meter-high pole, spewing fireworks from its mouth.
Besides entertainment and beautiful lanterns, another important part of the Lantern Festival is eating "tangyuan," or small dumpling balls made of sticky rice flour.
The custom of eating tangyuan originated during the Eastern Jin Dynasty in the fourth century and became popular about 1,000 years ago.
The fillings are either sweet or salty. Sweet fillings are made of sugar, walnuts, sesame, osmanthus flowers, rose petals and bean paste. A single ingredient or any combination can be used as the filling. The salty variety is filled with minced meat, vegetables or a mixture.
The way to make tangyuan also varies between northern and southern China. The traditional way followed in southern China is to shape the dough of rice flour into balls, make a hole, insert the filling, then close the hole and smooth out the dumpling by rolling it between your hands. In North China, sweet and non-meat fillings are the most common ingredients. The fillings are pressed into hardened cores, dipped lightly in water and rolled in a flat basket containing dry sticky 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 the dumpling is the desired size.
The custom of eating tangyuan remains popular today. But instead of making the food at home, people nowadays buy them in stores. Tangyuan manufacturers continue to improve the taste of the dumplings to attract customers.