Lantern Festival, also known as Yuanxiao Festival or Shangyuan Festival, falls on Lunar January 15th, right after the Spring Festival. It is a traditional festival of China. According to historical records, it came into being in Han Dynasty. There are several versions about its origination. Here goes the story popular among the people. It is said that during the reign of Emperor Wu in Han Dynasty, a court maid named Yuan Xiao intended to commit suicide for she missed her parents but was not allowed to leave the court. Dongfang Shuo, a warm-hearted and resourceful official made up his mind to help her when hearing of her story. He secretly spread the news that the god of fire would set a fire to Chang’an, the capital city of Han Dynasty, and burn it out on Lunar January 15th. The news sent the whole city into a panic. When Emperor Wu asked his officials for ideas, Dongfang Shuo advised him to give an order that all people should hang red lanterns all over the city and go outside to set off fireworks that day. Dongfang Shuo explained the god of fire would be deceived as he saw there was such a big “fire” on earth. The emperor gave the order and on Lunar January 15th, every one including the maids at court went outside. With the help of Dongfang Shuo, Yuan Xiao finally met her parents. From then on, people all over the nation began to hang red lanterns and set off fireworks on Lunar January 15th.
In the evening of Lunar January 15th, people watch lanterns, set off fireworks, guess lantern riddles, eat Tangyuan (also known as Yuanxiao), and watch traditional performances. Lanterns-watching dates from East Han Dynasty when Emperor Ming was in power. The activity flourished in Tang Dynasty. There were lanterns everywhere. People in groups poured out to the streets to watch the lanterns. Nowadays, the activity is still prevailing in China. In Beijing, there are lantern shows every year in Lantern Festival. Lantern-riddles-guessing came into being in South Song Dynasty. It was quite a popular activity at that time. People put the riddles down and pasted them on the lanterns. Every one could participate in the guess. But it was not easy to work the riddles out, for there were strict rules, which one should obey whenever he or she wanted to create a riddle or work out one. Nowadays, the activity is still favored by people but those strict rules have gone outdated. According to some old writings, Tangyuan appeared at the end of Song Dynasty. Tangyuan is a very traditional snack of China. It is a lovely ball generally made from glutinous rice flour. It tastes sweet with varieties of fillings such as black sesame, bean paste, and lotus seed paste, etc. Tangyuan symbolizes reunion. People eat Tangyuan together with their family members. Apart from the age-old activities, which were handed down from generation to generation, a lot of new activities have been added into the festival, such as Loong Lantern Dance, Loin Lantern Dance, and Stilt Walk, etc. Loong Lantern Dance is often translated into Dragon Lantern Festival. But as dragon refers to some ferocious beast, which is quite different from the real symbolic meaning of Chinese loong, I would like to call it Loong Lantern Dance. Loong was and is a great symbol and totem of China. Every Chinese believes he is the son of loong. Loong symbolized imperial power in feudal China. But now it is a mascot which symbolizes auspiciousness. Loong Lantern Dance is really exciting and the loong lantern is gorgeous. It consists of a huge lantern shaped as a loong’s head, a long body composed of hundreds of lanterns, and a tail lantern. Each lantern is fixed on a wooden board. The boards are connected end to end in a special way so that each lantern can turn right or left flexibly. Evening is the best time to appreciate Loong Lantern Dance. When the performance begins, several people shoulder the head (quite a heavy one); other people shoulder the body and the tail (One person carries one lantern; that means if there are one hundred lanterns in the body, there should be one hundred people carrying them.). People run fast, turning their lanterns to the right or left. Sometimes, they form multi-layer circles and circle around skillfully, making the loong lantern look like a loong in life. It is amazing.
Lantern Festival is also considered the Chinese Valentine’s Day of the ancient Chinese, though generally people take Double Seventh Festival (Lunar July 7th) as the Chinese Valentine’s Day. Some people believe Lantern Festival deserves the title. As is known to all, the ancient China had a series of feudal moral restriction towards women. Unmarried young women were not allowed to go outside alone. But in Lantern Festival, they can go out in groups. The festival provided them an opportunity to encounter some brilliant young men. There are a good many stories about how two young hearts met in Lantern Festival and fell in love with each other. Ouyang Xiu, a famous poet in North Song Dynasty, wrote a touching romantic poem against the festival. It reads:
Last year on this moonlit spring night,
Flowery lanterns in bloom lit the street.
As the moon rose above the willow tree,
In the dark he had a tryst with me.
This year on the same moonlit night,
The moon and lanterns are as bright.
Where is my beloved of last year?
My sleeves are wet with tear on tear.
It is certainly a good poem which has contributed to the romantic meaning of Lantern Festival. However, whether it is the Chinese Valentine’s Day or not is not really a big matter, for the meaning of Lantern Festival to the Chinese is far more than that. In the past, it was an important festival, a part of Chinese culture, favored by all the Chinese. Now it is still an important part of Chinese life and in the future it will be, too.