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The Lantern Festival, also called Yuanxiao Festival or Shangyuan Festival, falls on the 15th day of the 1st month on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. It is an important traditional national festival and also the first night of the year to see the full moon. It is believed to be during this time that spring returns, for which people hold celebrations.
The Lantern Festival began in the Western Han Dynasty more than 2000 years ago, and the tradition of lighting lanterns during the festival first began in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty was an advocate of Buddhism who learned that on the 15th day of the 1st month, there is a practice of lighting lanterns to pay respect to Buddha among Buddhists. Thus, he ordered that on the evening of this day, royal palaces, temples, and people shall light up lanterns to pay respect to Buddhism. Since then, this religious ritual became a grand festival for people from all ranks of society including royals to commoners, from central China to all over the country.
It has also been said that the Lantern Festival originated from the Torch Festival. During the Han Dynasty, people held torches to the fields to chase away beasts and insects in the hopes of an abundant harvest. This practice became very popular in the Sui, Tang, and Song Dynasties, and participants numbering more than 10,000 danced from dusk to dawn. Nowadays in some areas in Southwest China on this holiday, people make and hold torches constructed of branches or reeds and dance animatedly in groups in the fields or on the public grounds.
The length and activities of the Lantern Festival has extended over time. It was originally celebrated for just 1 day in the Han Dynasty, 3 days in the Tang Dynasty, 5 days in the Song Dynasty, and for as long as 10 days in the Ming Dynasty. During the Qing Dynasty, many folk activities such as a lion dance, dragon dance, and walking in stilts were added to make the festival more interesting.
China’s lanterns originated in the Western Han Dynasty about 2000 years ago. Every year in anticipation of the Lantern Festival, red lanterns are hung all around as symbols of reunion, a festive atmosphere, happiness, and fortune in Chinese culture. Over many generations of development by artisans, excellent workmanship and rich varieties of lanterns were formed. Their grace and presence are closely integrated with the people’s daily lives and total aesthetic flow of society as you can see by the common usage of lanterns in temples and in the fronts of houses around the country.
The making of lanterns is a combination of techniques from painting, paper cutting, paper folding, embroidery, sewing, and more. Materials include bamboo, wood, vine, wheat-straw, animal horns, metal, silk, and so on. Images on the lanterns typically include landscapes, flowers, birds, dragons, and phoenixes. Palace lanterns and gauze lanterns are the most famous amongst all the varieties.
According to Chinese folk traditions, people get together with their families, light up lanterns, watch the full moon, guess lantern riddles, eat Yuanxiao (glutinous rice balls), and light fireworks on the evening of the Lantern Festival. Because the festival and its traditions are observed in nearly all areas of the colossal country and has such a long history, the customs of celebrating the Lantern Festival vary from region to region, but there are some core elements that all participants share in common.
Yuan Xiao, small filled or unfilled glutinous rice flour balls, is also called Tangyuan. Because of their round shapes and similar pronunciation as “union,” it is usually eaten together with family and symbolizes family unity. The fillings vary according to tastes and preferences, but popular types are white sugar, sesame powder, walnut, mashed jujube, and bean paste. Tangyuan is usually cooked by boiling the balls in water, and also frying and steaming.
During the Tang Dynasty more than 1000 years ago, the capital city of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) was prosperous and the largest city in the world with a population of more than 1 million people. Under the support and arrangement of various emperors, lanterns fairs became very popular and extravagant, essentially evolving almost into a carnival. During the reign of Emperor Tang Xuanzong (685-762), the lantern fair in Chang’an was so grand that 50,000 lanterns of various shapes and sizes were made and lit up. The emperor even ordered a giant lantern tower to be made with 20 rooms where young girls and palace maids would dance under the lights. In the Song Dynasty, the scale of lantern fairs became even larger than those in the Tang Dynasty, and more folk activities were added.
In Taiwan, lanterns are considered to indicate brightness and birth. People believe that lanterns can bright up their future, while women would deliberately walk under the lanterns in the hopes of getting pregnant with a boy.
Lantern riddles originated from riddles in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period (770BC-221BC). During the Lantern Festival, every household will hang up lanterns and light fireworks. Some wanted to make it more interesting and came up with the idea of writing riddles on a piece of paper and pasting them on the lanterns for people to guess. Because this game encourages competition, interest, and knowledge, it became a very widespread and popular activity.
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The Lantern Festival also has a romantic side. In feudal times, it provided an opportunity for young men and women to meet each other. At that time, young girls were allowed to go out by themselves only during festivals. Gazing at lanterns and attending lantern fairs were a good opportunities for them to meet more people, and unmarried young men and women also searched for their possible lover.
In Taiwan, the tradition is such that unmarried women secretly pick scallions or vegetables on the evening of the Lantern Festival in hopes of finding a husband and starting a happy family.
Zoubaibing literally means walking to ward off disease. Participants are mostly women who walk together in groups along walls and passing bridges. It is believed that Zoubaibing can ward off disease and dispel misfortunes.
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