Home Editor's Pick Intriguing Traditions of the Chinese Lantern Festival

Intriguing Traditions of the Chinese Lantern Festival

The Lantern Festival is one of the most celebrated holidays across Asia and it officially marks the last day of the Lunar New Year celebrations. It falls on the 15th day of the 1st month on the Lunar Calendar, the first night of the year’s full moon. So this year it is on Friday, February 26, 2021. Here are some well-known and lesser-known traditions surrounding the festival.

The Festival’s origins

The original purpose of this holiday was to celebrate and worship great enlightened beings. Over 2000 years ago, Emperor Wu of Han lit lanterns in his palace to worship a Daoist deity — this was the early beginnings of the tradition, but at this stage, it was not something for everyday people.

Buddhism had arrived in China during the Eastern Han Dynasty and Emperor Ming of Han (who was a Buddhist) gave orders to light lanterns in the imperial palace and temples to show respect for the teachings of the Buddha.

This happened on the 15th day of the first lunar month and extended outside the palace with the Emperor asking all citizens to hang and light lanterns. From this point on, lighting lanterns became popular among common people and this is how the tradition of the Lantern Festival began. 

3 red chinese lanterns in the night
Yuanxiao, or the Chinese Lantern Festival, stems from many ancient traditions, some well known and some a little more obscure. (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Florin Seitan)

How the festival evolved

With time, the festival grew in size and scale. People got together and organized these large events to display lanterns in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes that would usually be accompanied by the classic Lion Dance, acrobatic performances, stores selling handmade items, and food carts. 

Lantern riddles 

Riddles have a long history in China. Attaching riddles during the Lantern Festival is believed to have first developed during the Song Dynasty. Small strips of cloth were attached to the lantern body, and the person who could solve the riddle won a prize — sometimes even the lantern itself.

It’s a lot of fun and a good challenge for both the riddle makers and solvers to showcase just how clever they are. Lantern riddles are called (wén hǔ), “literary tiger”, or (dēng hǔ), “lantern tiger”, because solving the riddles can be a hard task that requires the might of a tiger. 

chinese couple look at riddles written on paper hanging up high, part of a tradition in the chinese lantern festival
Lantern Riddles are a big part of the festival where you can get to test your ability to problem solve. (Image via Dreamstime.com © Vwvwvwvwv)

Can you solve this lantern riddle? 

ACDEHIJLNP 

Use the 10 letters to spell out the names of 4 countries, each name must be 5 letters long and the 4 countries must be neighbors. I will leave the answer at the end of this article. 

Sticky rice balls

Sticky Rice Balls or Glutinous Rice Balls were first developed in the Song Dynasty and later became a “must-have” item during the Lantern Festival. There are 2 different names — Yuan Xiao and Tang Yuan — depending on how they are made. Tang Yuan is for the ones that are made like a dumpling with a filling inside and Yuan Xiao is made by rolling the filling in glutinous rice flour. The festival is commonly known as the Yuan Xiao Festival — you really can’t go without Sticky Rice Balls for the Lantern Festival. 

sticky rice balls in blue and white porcelain bowl with dark wood carved table and furniture in background.
Sticky Rice Balls, a traditional dish for the Spring Lantern Festival, but so delicious some people eat them all year round. (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Linfeng Xu )

Moon gazing

The festival marks the first full moon of the Lunar year so it makes sense for people to admire the moon on this day. A full moon is round — a shape that symbolizes reunion and why this is a time for family reunions. Chinese scholars loved to write poems on this occasion as well.

full moon above ancient chinese building at night
It is the first full moon of the year, so the festival includes moon gazing and the circle shape symbolizes reunion with family. (Image: unsplash.com via @ toyamakanna )

Rope jumping

During the Ming and Qin dynasties, a popular activity during the Lantern Festival for kids and women was rope jumping. The only way to celebrate the passing of the old year was to jump into the new.

Walking across bridges 

This is a unique tradition for ladies, who didn’t get to step out of the house very often in ancient times, but on this day, women of all ages from old to young would walk across a bridge or multiple bridges.

This was believed to get rid of all illnesses in the coming year. It was a tradition to wear white tops while crossing the bridge. Later, the bridge crossing extended to climbing mountains and walking on the street, even walking on the ice in the northern regions where it was freezing cold this time of the year.  

moon bridge from China over a frozen river on a winter day
Walking across bridges was a unique tradition for women that was believed to get rid of all illnesses in the coming year. (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Athenar )

Touching door studs

Ming Dynasty ladies believed that touching studs on palace doors would grant them their wish of getting a son. This tradition (again, one just for the ladies) was done in secret at first. By the time of the Qin Dynasty, it was no longer a secret, and ladies would line up to touch the door studs. If you have ever been to Beijing, you may have noticed at the palace that many tourists take photos while touching the door studs — which comes from this tradition. 

Stealing vegetables

Now, this one is very peculiar, and it originates from the Jurchen Tribe. During the Jin and Yuan dynasties, three days of open stealing were allowed where people would not get punished. Those who were unmarried did it hoping for a decent spouse. Women who were married did it hoping for a son. As you can imagine, this tradition is no longer practiced. 

person releasing sky lantern into sky with many lit up behind her, we can see she has written what she wishes for in the New Year on the lantern.
Releasing a sky lantern with some wishes for the coming New Year written on it. (Image: unsplash.com via @ Austin Neill )

Releasing lanterns into the sky

These days, at the end of the festival, you might see the awe-inspiring sight of handmade lanterns with wishes written on them lit up and released into the sky. This is the official end of Chinese New Year and releasing lanterns symbolizes a bright and hopeful New Year. I wish this for you all.

Riddle answer:

China, Japan, Nepal, India 

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  • Jessica writes about films, and occasionally gets to direct them. Music, photography, art, poetry, reading and travel are pretty good too. She has a love of silent films, they are the closest she will ever get to "time travel."

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