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Cultural Heritage / Trip Ideas

All you need to know about the Lantern Festival

By Linting Hou

February 10

The Lantern Festival is the first significant festival after Chinese New Year. Lanterns, folk art performances and Yuanxiao (Tangyuan) are three essentials of this festival.

The Lantern Festival is the first significant festival after Chinese New Year. Lanterns, folk art performances and Yuanxiao (Tangyuan) are three essentials of this festival.

Lantern Festival or Yuanxiao Festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first Chinese lunar month when the first full moon of the year appears. On that day, families get together, feast on delicious food, and enjoy festive folk art performances. In 2008, the Lantern Festival was listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Lantern Festival is a traditional festival dating back more than 2,000 years. It was Emperor Wen of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD) who formally made the fifteenth day of the first lunar month the Yuanxiao festival. Originally, it was based around sacrifices for gods, and has since become a folk festival for family reunions.

Families looking at lanterns together at the Lantern Festival [Image Credit: VCG]

Customs and performances

The most important custom during the festival is watching lanterns, hence the festival’s name. This custom is derived from Eastern Han (25 – 220 AD) when Emperor Ming ruled the country. Legend has it that Emperor Ming advocated Buddhism, so he ordered temples to light candles and for the public to hang lanterns on the night of the festival to show respect for Buddha. Ever since then, there has been a custom of lantern shows during this festival. Riddles are written on the lanterns too for people to work out their answers. A hearty laugh is the best award.

A girl carrying her rabbit-like lantern [Image Credit: VCG]
People also give a variety of performances to celebrate this festival, including the Dragon Dance, Lion Dance, Yangko Dance and walking on stilts.

Dragon Dance has a history of more than 2,000 years. In ancient times, Chinese people regarded the Chinese dragon or Long as the mythical creature which could control rain. Therefore, people perform the Dragon Dance to pray for good weather and bountiful harvest.

Dragon Dance [Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wang Haibin]
With a history of more than 1,000 years, the Lion Dance originated in the Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280 AD). Although legends claim different origins, they all believe the Lion Dance can protect people from misfortunes and bring good luck.

Lion Dance [Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Zhang Qiang]
In addition to Dragon and Lion Dance, the Yangko Dance and walking on stilts also add a joyful atmosphere to the festival. The performers who give the stilt walking performances always put on colorful makeup and clothes, attracting people with their acrobatic movements.

Performance of Walking on Stilts [Image Credit: VCG]
Yangko Dance is popular in Northern China. The actors also wear colorful makeup and clothes in their often comedic performances.

Yangko Dance [Image Credit: VCG]

Food

Yuanxiao (glutinous rice ball) is the must-eat food for Northerners during the Lantern Festival. Hence, it’s also named Yuanxiao Festival. The southern counterpart of Yuanxiao is Tangyuan, which has become a popular dessert for all Chinese people. Usually, the fillings of Yuanxiao or Tangyuan are sugar, sesame, jujube paste and sweetened bean paste. The round shape of Yuanxiao and Tangyuan symbolizes family reunion and harmony.

Tangyuan [Image Credit: VCG]
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