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Yuan Xiao Festival: Chinese Lantern Day

Updated on March 4, 2015

This one used to be the most colorful and romantic Chinese Traditional Day, but it becomes silent today. The famous general and poet, Xin Qiji, in Song dynasty (960 A.D.-1279 A.D.), described the scene on the day: seems like east wind coming by tonight, flowers in full bloom and stars blown off like a rain overnight. Rare horses, luxury carriages, sweet scent full of the air; music with flutes, wind pipes, jade pots sparkling, dancing in melody a whole night. People dressing up, girls in perfume giggling, coming and going. He searching for her among crowds, but in vain. All at once, he turned around, the one standing there with lights glazing.

Today (February 14, 2014) is January 15th in Chinese lunar calendar. It is the last day of the New Year celebration, and also another important traditional Day in China: Yuan Xiao or Lantern Festival. Chinese word "Xiao" refers to "the night", and "Yuan" refers to "the first month", and so "Yuan Xiao" festival actually means the first night under the full moon in the whole year, which further implies that spring is coming back to the earth from the moment. On the night, a clear full moon hangs up in the sky, and people burn thousands of colorful lanterns on the ground. People burn fireworks, appreciate the moon, play lantern riddles, eat Tang Yuan (also named Yuan Xiao), and usually all families reunited together to celebrate.


Yuan Xiao Festival started from west Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago.The current scientists created the first one complete calendar, Tai Chu Calendar, based on which one year has 365.2502 days, and January 15th was set as an important festival. Han Wu the Great ordered the sacrifice to the greatest god in the universe, Tai Yi God, on this day. Playing lanterns is the necessary program on this festival. It was said that this tradition started from the period ruled by Han Ming Emperor. Currently, the Buddhist in China lighted a lot lanterns and candles to watch the sarira (the relics of the Buddha) and worship the Buddha on the night. The emperor believed in Buddha, and so he ordered to light and hang out lanterns in Royal Palace, temples and in public. Since then, such a Buddhist celebration had gradually developed into a severe public festival. In China prosperous Tang Dynasty, playing lanterns on Yuan Xiao night became a big celebration. Whether in Capital city or small towns, a sea of lanterns in various shapes could be seen everywhere. Lanterns could be made into a large ship or a big tree. The poet used to describe the night with the sentence "fiery trees and silver flowers full of the city in the sleepless night", or "thousands of trees in bloom by east wind in the night and stars blown off like rain drops". By the following Song Dynasty, the game of playing lantern riddles became popular, i.e. riddles were written on lanterns, and people guessed them and got a lot fun.

Tang-yuan, or Yuan Xiao, is the necessary traditional food for this day. It is a round ball made by sticky rice flour with various fillings in it, such as rose paste, black sesame paste, bean or Chinese date paste, or nuts paste, etc. It can be cooked in different ways based on different customs in different places, like boiled in hot water, fried with oil, or steamed. Tang-yuan has the meaning of reunion, and usually is eaten only for this festival.

Tang-yuan | Source

Yuan Xiao Festival was a serious, interesting and big celebration in ancient time. People can imagine that an ocean of red lanterns with burning candles in them, sparkled with the twinkling stars in the sky, and millions of people talked, laughed and played among them. A famous poet in Song Dynasty had one really famous poem to describe a romantic story happened in the happy moment: Hundreds and thousands of times, for her I searched in chaos, suddenly, I turned by chance, to where the lights were waning, and there she stood. In present days, like other traditional festivals, Yuan Xiao Festival does not have much attention any more. But people still celebrate it, and still eat Tang-yuan. Young generations still pay visits to parents. Governments may still organize some lantern displayment. And people can still see a lot lantern selling, but rarely see candles in them, instead batteries. It is good, anyway, that traditions can still be seen in modern civilization.


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    • Hui (蕙) profile image

      Hui (蕙) 5 years ago

      Thanks for the lovely comment, Barnsey. Fortunately, there are still people like you and me who try to help a little for this "uphold".

    • Barnsey profile image

      Barnsey 5 years ago from Happy Hunting Grounds

      I hear an echo in your voice that reminds me that the same situation is here in America. The traditions of old are being upheld but people seem to only be going through the motions. It is not the same as it used to be. Very lovley and informative hub! Great Photos!