The Chinese Lantern Festival Marks End of New Year Celebrations

The stories behind the traditions of lanterns and dumplings
By Cindy Chan
Cindy Chan
Cindy Chan
March 3, 2015 Updated: March 3, 2015

According to tradition, Chinese New Year celebrations continue until the Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the first month on the Chinese lunar calendar.

On the Western calendar, the Lantern Festival this year takes place on March 5, marking the end of more than two weeks of festivities that began on Chinese New Year’s Day on Feb. 19.

The Lantern Festival is traditionally marked by lantern displays and other activities that pay reverence to the divine, and by making and eating small, round dumplings that symbolize family togetherness and happiness.

The Lantern Festival is also called Yuanxiao Festival, or Yuan Xiao Jie (元宵節, yuán xiāo jié), where 元 (yuán), literally “first,” indicates the first month; 宵 (xiāo) refers to night; and 節 (jié) means festival.

The Yuanxiao Festival is also the first time for the full moon to appear in the new year.

‘Official of Heaven’ Bestows Good Fortune

There are many stories about the origin of the festival. One comes from the time of Qin Shihuang (259–210 B.C.), who was the first emperor to unite the country after conquering all the other feudal states at that time.

The Yuanxiao Festival is also the first time for the full moon to appear in the new year.

In Daoist tradition, it was believed that the official of heaven, Tianguan, who was responsible for bestowing good fortune, was born on the 15th day of the first lunar month.

Tianguan controlled the destiny of the human world and also determined when to inflict drought and other disasters upon human beings. Since this heavenly official was fond of festivities, the emperor would order celebratory activities including colourful lantern displays on his birthday while praying to him for favourable weather and good health.

Buddha Dispels Darkness

Another popular story is about Emperor Mingdi (A.D. 28–75) of the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25–220), a devout Buddhist who had sent a delegation to India to seek the Buddha’s teachings.

The emperor learned that monks in India gathered to worship the Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month. Therefore, he also held ceremonies in the palace that night with many lit lanterns to show respect to Buddha. It was said that the power of Buddha could dispel darkness.

Since then, all subsequent emperors ordered splendid ceremonies each year. The lantern displays lasted for three days during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907), and five days in the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960–1279).

The festival later became an important occasion celebrated by people from all social classes. Many kinds of colourful lanterns were made on which were painted figures from various folk tales and other beautiful designs.

Today, lantern displays on the 15th day of the first lunar month remain large festive events throughout China, while family members gather in a joyful atmosphere and eat yuanxiao, a small, round dumpling made of sticky glutinous rice flour with various fillings.

Filial Palace Maid Reunites with Family

The dumplings are called yuanxiao in honour of a filial maid in the palace of Emperor Wudi (156–87 B.C.) during the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 23).

The maid’s name was Yuanxiao, and she was skilled at making the most delicious sweet dumplings in the palace. But sadly, after entering the palace, she lost all contact with her parents, as it was forbidden for palace ladies to be in touch with their families.

One day, after several years away from her family, she was so heartsick with a longing for home and not being able to care for her parents that she began to weep in the garden.

Minister Dong, who happened to be picking some plum blossoms for the emperor, saw her crying. Upon hearing her story, Dong promised to help her.

Dong had an idea. The next day, he put a table and chair in the market and posed as a fortune-teller. Everyone who came to have his or her fortune told picked a bamboo stick with a warning of “a devastating fire on the 15th of the first month.”

This caused great anxiety among the people. Their concerns were reported to Emperor Wudi, who summoned all the ministers and asked for their advice.

Minister Dong suggested: “It is said that the god of fire likes to eat sweet dumplings. Let us ask Yuanxiao to make her delicious dumplings to serve him, and hold a prayer ceremony that night while decreeing that all citizens go outside with lit lanterns to drive away bad luck.

“With such a display, the city will appear to be on fire. The Jade Emperor is very compassionate and may stop the god of fire from punishing our people.”

Emperor Wudi was pleased with this idea and ordered everyone to follow Dong’s advice.

The streets were crowded with people on the evening of the 15th, and Yuanxiao was among them, along with the other palace ladies. Each carried either a bowl of sweet dumplings made by Yuanxiao or a long bamboo pole with a lantern hung on the end.

Yuanxiao’s parents were also among the crowd. Thus Yuanxiao and her parents found each other and were reunited. No fire occurred, and the sweetened dumplings as well as the festive day itself came to be called yuanxiao in recognition of the filial palace maid’s meritorious service.

Yuanxiao dumplings have since become an important part of the Lantern Festival.

Dumplings Celebrate Family Reunion

The pronunciation of yuanxiao is similar to that of 團圓 (tuán yuán), which means reunion. Thus the round dumplings symbolize family togetherness, and eating them represents bringing happiness and good fortune to the family in the new year.

In times past, yuanxiao were typically sweet, with the fillings made from sugar, walnuts, sesame, rose petals, sweetened tangerine peel, red bean paste, date paste, lotus seed paste, fruit paste, or a combination of these ingredients.

In modern times, a salty variety made of minced meat, vegetables, or a mixture of both has been widely used.

Note: Yuanxiao are called tangyuan (湯圓, tāng yuán) in the southern parts of China. Both names refer to round dumplings made of sticky glutinous rice flour and filled with sweet stuffing. The difference lies in the method in which they are made.

In northern China, sweet or non-meat filling is usually used. The filling is pressed into hardened cores, dipped lightly in water, and rolled in a flat basket containing dry glutinous rice flour. A layer of flour sticks to the filling, which is then again dipped in water and rolled in flour. This is repeated until the dumpling is the desired size.

In southern China, people shape the rice flour dough into balls, make a hole in each, insert the filling, then close the hole and smooth out the dumpling by rolling it between their hands.

Cindy Chan
Cindy Chan