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Lantern Festival

On the 15th day of the first lunar month, two weeks after Chinese New Year, another important traditional Chinese festival, the Lantern Festival (Yuanxiao Jie元宵节) is celebrated. It is the first full moon night in the Chinese calendar, marking (the anticipation of) the return of spring and symbolizing the reunion of the family. It also marks the end of the Spring Festival. It will be celebrated on Tuesday, 15 February in 2022.

During the Lantern Festival, Chinese people would do many interesting things to celebrate it.

  1. Viewing Lantern displays

As its name suggests, the most important part of the Lantern Festival revolves around viewing and interacting with grand displays of Chinese lanterns (灯笼). They are different from the round, red, basketball-sized lanterns that people may have seen hanging outside Chinese restaurants. While this type of lantern is certainly omnipresent around the time of Chinese New Year, the lanterns involved in Lantern Festival displays are quite different.

The lanterns displayed in the Festival are often enormous, with some of the larger ones measuring over 65-foot (20 meters) high and 330-foot (100 meters) long. These giant lanterns aren’t usually round or red. Instead, they’re built into every imaginable color and shape, depicting real and imaginary animals like giraffes and dragons along with giant flowers, trees and palaces. Groups of lanterns are often arranged together to illustrate famous scenes from various historical or mythological stories.

In addition, iconic floating sky lanterns were often incorporated into Lantern Festival celebrations in the past and flying them was once a favorite activity for children and adults alike. Now, however, they’re considered a fire hazard and have been banned in many places both in China and abroad.

  1. Guessing lantern riddles

Guessing lantern riddles (猜灯谜) started in the Song Dynasty, and it is one of the most important and popular activities of the Lantern Festival. Lantern owners write riddles on paper notes and paste them on the colorful lanterns. People crowd around to guess the riddles. If someone thinks they have the right answer, they can pull the riddle off and go to the lantern owner to check their answer. If the answer is right, there is usually a small gift as a prize.

Generally, lantern riddles are based on complex forms of wordplay and may be difficult for even advanced students of Chinese to understand. Most riddles consist of the riddle itself and a hint that tells the guesser what form he or she should expect the answer to take. For example, sometimes the hint might indicate that the answer is a Chinese idiom (成语), the name of a country, or that it should consist of only one Chinese character.

  1. Watching dragon and lion dances

As two of the most outstanding traditional folk dances in China, dragon and lion dances are common during the Lantern Festival. Chinese people (traditionally) regard the lion as a symbol of bravery and strength, and believe that its appearance can drive away evil and protect people and their livestock. Chinese people worship the dragon and regard it as a symbol of good luck. 

Lion dance (舞狮), for example, is a type of folk dance typically performed by two dancers wearing a single lion suit. One performer controls the head and the front part of the lion’s body, while the other controls the rear. The performers dance and perform various acrobatic tricks to the beat of drums, gongs, and cymbals. Some lion dances are quite complex and may even include martial arts-inspired moves. In traditional Chinese culture, lions are considered to be powerful, auspicious animals, and lion dances are thought to bring good luck and financial prosperity.

  1. Eating Tangyuan

Besides entertainment and beautiful lanterns, another important part of the Lantern Festival is eating Tangyuan. They are some small dumpling balls made of glutinous rice flour. These balls of glutinous rice flour are generally loaded with sweet fillings made from ingredients like black sesame paste. Although most tangyuan are sweet, savory tangyuan do exist. Most tangyuan are steamed or boiled, but they can also be fried. Usually served floating in a thin hot soup, they’re traditionally white in color.

In recent years, modern versions of tangyuan have also appeared. These come in a mix of bright colors like purple, pink and orange. Creative chefs have updated the fillings, sometimes using less-traditional ingredients like chocolate. Although they were originally only consumed on festive occasions, nowadays frozen tangyuan can be found in supermarkets throughout the year and can be eaten anytime.

Generally speaking, on the night of the Lantern Festival, streets are decorated with colorful lanterns, often with riddles written on them. People eat sweet rice balls called tangyuan, watch dragon and lion dances, and set off fireworks. Would you like to celebrate it with us?

By Suemmer Luo, TBC Intern