Monday, February 6, 2012


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The Chinese Lantern Festival or Yuanxiao Festival ends the period of the Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) celebrations.
Yuan means “first” while xiao means “night”, referring to the first time the full moon is seen in a New Year, symbolizing the coming back of the spring. The festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month of the lunisolar year in the Chinese calendar, which is February 6 in 2012 in the Gregorian calendar.
It is not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is sometimes also known as the “Lantern Festival” in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia.
The Lantern Festival is a 2,000 year old Chinese tradition. It has roots in Hinduism and Buddhism and is celebrated in countries such as China, Taiwan, Thailand and in Chinese communities around the world. Business and other official closings depend on the region. Similar to the Mid-Autumn Festival, Lantern Festival celebration is considered an evening for family reunions. On the night of the festival, people go to the streets to appreciate tens of thousands of colorful and brightly decorated lanterns of all kinds and shapes, an unforgettable and stunningly beautiful view of an ocean of lights.
Paper lanterns are carried by children through the streets, lanterns hang in homes and on storefronts and at many places sky lanterns are rising into the air and grand fireworks are displayed.
Many Chinese Lantern Festival activities are sponsored by local Chinese communities. Such festivities often include parades, playing the dragon lantern, lion dances, peace drum and other performances, acrobatics, food and other festivities. Also, many larger cities hold big lantern parades.
Furthermore, essential parts of the festival are eating dumpling balls, called Yuanxiao (glutinous rice-balls with sweet fillings), as well as guessing lantern riddles.
Chinese Lantern Festival 2010 at Qianmen, Beijing

Qianmen is the colloquial name for Zhengyangmen, a gate in Beijing’s historic city wall. The gate is situated to the south of Tiananmen Square and once guarded the southern entry into the Inner City. Although much of Beijing’s city walls were demolished, Qianmen remains an important geographical marker of the city. The city’s central north-south axis passes through Zhengyangmen’s main gate. It was formerly named Lizhengmen, meaning “beautiful portal”.
History & Legends
There are many different beliefs about the origin of the Lantern Festival, however, it is likely to have had something to do with celebrating and cultivating positive relationships between people, families, nature and the higher beings that were believed to be responsible for bringing or returning the light each year.
One legend tells us that it was a time to worship Taiyi,
the God of Heaven
in ancient times. The belief was that the God of Heaven controlled the destiny of the human world. He had sixteen dragons at his beck and call and he decided when to inflict drought, storms, famine or pestilence upon human beings. Beginning with Qinshihuang, the first emperor to unite the country, all the emperors ordered splendid ceremonies each year. The emperor would ask Taiyi to bring favorable weather and good health to him and his people.
Wu Di of the Han Dynasty directed special attention to this event. In 104 BCE, he proclaimed it to be one of the most important celebrations and the ceremony would last throughout the night.
Another legend associates the Lantern Festival with Taoism. Tianguan is the Taoist god responsible for good fortune. His birthday falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. It is said that Tianguan likes all types of entertainment, so followers prepare various kinds of activities during which they pray for good fortune.
Yet another common legend dealing with the origins of the Lantern Festival speaks of a beautiful crane that flew down to earth from heaven. After it landed on earth it was hunted and killed by some villagers. This angered the Jade Emperor in Heaven because the crane was his favorite one. Therefore, he planned a storm of fire to destroy the village on the fifteenth lunar day. The Jade Emperor’s daughter warned the inhabitants of her father’s plan to destroy their village. The village was in turmoil because nobody knew how they could escape their imminent destruction. However, a wise man from another village suggested that every family should hang red lanterns around their houses, set up bonfires on the streets, and explode firecrackers on the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth lunar days. This would give the village the appearance of being on fire to the Jade Emperor. On the fifteenth lunar day, troops sent down from heaven whose mission was to destroy the village saw that the village was already ablaze, and returned to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor. Satisfied, the Jade Emperor decided not to burn down the village. From that day on, people celebrate the anniversary on the fifteenth lunar day every year by carrying lanterns on the streets and exploding firecrackers and fireworks.
Until the Sui Dynasty in the sixth century, Emperor Yangdi invited envoys from other countries to China to see the colorful lighted lanterns and enjoy the gala performances.
By the beginning of the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century, the lantern displays would last three days. The emperor also lifted the curfew, allowing the people to enjoy the festive lanterns day and night. It is not difficult to find Chinese poems which describe this happy scene.
In the Song Dynasty, the festival was celebrated for five days and the activities began to spread to many of the big cities in China. Colorful glass and even jade were used to make lanterns, with figures from folk tales painted on the lanterns.
However, the largest Lantern Festival celebration took place in the early part of the 15th century. The festivities continued for ten days. Emperor Chengzu had the downtown area set aside as a center for displaying the lanterns. Even today, there is a place in Beijing called Dengshikou. In Chinese, deng means “lantern” and shi is “market”.
The area became a market where lanterns were sold during the day. In the evening, the local people would go there to see the beautiful lighted lanterns on display.

Today, the displaying of lanterns is still a major event on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month throughout China. Chengdu in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, for example, holds a lantern fair each year in Culture Park. During the Lantern Festival, the park is a virtual ocean of lanterns. Many new designs attract large numbers of visitors. The most eye-catching lantern is the Dragon Pole. This is a lantern in the shape of a golden dragon, spiraling up a 27-meter-high pole, spewing fireworks from its mouth. Cities such as Hangzhou and Shanghai have adopted electric and neon lanterns, which can often be seen beside their traditional paper or wooden counterparts.
Fireworks at Lantern Festival in Zhengzhou 2008

Zhengzhou formerly called Zheng County is a prefecture-level city, and the capital of Henan province, People’s Republic of China. It also serves as the political, economic, technological, and educational centre of the province, as well as being a major transportation hub for Central China. The city centre lies on the southern bank of the Yellow River, and is one of the Eight Great Ancient Capitals of China.
(Lantern Festival Fireworks in Kaohsiung, 2005)


The tradition of appreciating lanterns on the Lantern Festival originates from the Eastern Han Dynasty, which has a bearing on the introduction of Buddhism into China at that time. It is a Buddhist convention that the monks would visit sarira and lighten up lanterns to show respect to Buddha on Jan 15. Therefore, Emperors of that dynasty, who were determined to promote Buddhism, ordered people to lighten up lanterns in both palaces and temples on that night to show respect to Buddha. Additionally, civilians were all requested to hang up lanterns on that night, which is why the festival is called “Lantern Festival”.
While the Lantern Festival has changed very little over the last two millennia, technological advances have made the celebration more and more complex and visually stimulating. Master craftsman construct multicolored paper lanterns in the likeness of butterflies, dragons, birds, dragonflies, and many other animals; these accentuate the more common, red, spherical lanterns. Brilliantly-lit floats and mechanically driven light displays draw the attention of the young and old alike. Sometimes, entire streets are blocked off, with lanterns mounted above and to the sides, creating a hallway of lamps. Some cities in North China even make lanterns from blocks of ice.
A mix of photos and film scenes taken at the Montreal Botanical Garden
during the Chinese Lantern Festival

Some people release hot-air lanterns made of paper and fueled with kerosene. In the town of Pingshi in northern Taiwan, thousands of these sky lanterns are released to light up the night sky. The lanterns convey messages to the gods to bestow luck on the people below.

Sky Lanterns – Kongming Lanterns
Sky lanterns, also known as Kongming Lantern are airborne paper lanterns traditionally found in some Asian cultures. They are constructed from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame, and contain a small candle or fuel cell composed of a waxy flammable material. When lit, the flame heats the air inside the lantern, thus lowering its density causing the lantern to rise into the air. The sky lantern is only airborne for as long as the flame stays alight, after which the lantern floats back to the ground.
Sky lanterns are also referred to as sky candles or fire balloons, however the latter term is also used to refer to balloon munitions used during World War II.

In ancient China, sky lanterns were strategically used in wars. However later on, non-military applications were employed as they became popular with children at carnivals. These lanterns were subsequently incorporated into festivals like the Chinese Mid-Autumn and Lantern Festivals.
Pingxi District in New Taipei City of Taiwan holds an annual Lantern Festival in which thousands of sky lanterns are released.
Lantern Festival in Taiwan: The Sky Lanterns at Pingxi
Music by “Heavenly Melody”, a Chinese Christian music organization based in Taiwan.
Title: “Silent Night, Peaceful Night”
Erhu, a tradtitional 2-stringed violin-like Chinese instrument, played by Suzanne

As sky lanterns contain a flame, there is the danger that they can cause a fire when landing on flammable ground. They can achieve quite a height and launching them in strong winds is not recommended. After the balloon lands, the leftover thin wire frame may present a hazard to any animal tempted to swallow it. Sanya in China has banned sky lanterns due to hazard to aircraft
They are also forbidden to be used in parts of Germany. In Austria it is illegal to sell, produce or import them, or to distribute them in any other way.
A Night of Magic – a documentary about the Lantern Festival in Taiwan

Taiwanese refer to the Lantern Festival as the “mini Lunar New Year”. The celebrations attract tens of thousands of people each year, and are also a favorite among tourists. The festival is always one of the most representative of Taiwanese art.
- River Hongbao, Singapore in 2010 -
display of dazzling lanterns from Chengdu, China

Riddle-guessing is an essential part of the Festival.
Lantern owners write riddles on a piece of paper and post them on the lanterns. If others have solutions to the riddles, they can take the paper out and present their solution to the lantern owner to check their answer. If they are right, they will get a little gift.
The riddle activity became part of the festival during the Tang Dynasty and the riddles often contain messages of good fortune, family reunion, abundant harvest, prosperity and love.
Yuanxiao – Tangyuan
Besides entertainment and beautiful lanterns, another important part of the Lantern Festival,
or Yuanxiao Festival is the tradition of eating small dumpling balls made of glutinous rice flour with fillings that range from red bean paste to minced meat.
These balls are also called Yuanxiao (in the north of China), in the south of China (and e.g. also Taiwan) people call the sweet rice ball Tangyuan.
The way to make Yuanxiao also varies between northern and southern China.
It is said that the custom of eating Yuanxiao originated during the Eastern Jin Dynasty in the fourth century, then became popular during the Tang and Song periods.
The fillings inside the dumplings or Yuanxiao are either sweet or salty. Sweet fillings are made of sugar, Walnuts, sesame, osmanthus flowers, rose petals, sweetened tangerine peel, bean paste, or jujube paste. A single ingredient or any combination can be used as the filling . The salty variety is filled with minced meat, vegetables or a mixture.
The symbolism of the dumplings’ shape is more important than the taste. Their roundness is considered harmonious with the full moon of that night., subtly indicating the reunion of the family and complete happiness.
Writer Shen Hongfei said the popular festival snack, yuanxiao, is closely connected with mankind’s subconscious preference for round things such as Taichi or meat balls. The round shape is considered affable as it tries to remain on everyone’s right side.

Despite the lack of a written history on yuanxiao, some scholars hold that the food began to emerge as early as the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), becoming popular during the period of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
The popularity of yuanxiao during the festival has been reflected among folktales, one of the best-known is perhaps connected to Yuan Shikai (Yuan Shih-Kai, 1859-1916).
As one of the most significant political figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Yuan was a high military official in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). He turned against the Qing, succeeded Sun Yat-sen as the first president of the Republic and attempted to found a new imperial dynasty.
But people’s love for yuanxiao aroused Yuan’s suspicions, because a homonymous word for “yuanxiao” can mean “the destruction of the Yuan dynasty.”
Such an evil omen became so annoying to ambitious Yuan that he issued a nationwide order requiring people to give up the term “yuanxiao” and use “tangyuan” instead. Many believe this is the origin of “tangyuan,” an alternative name for the popular food.
Moment for Lovers

The Lantern Festival is also a moment for lovers.
In the past, it was the one day of the year when a lady could come out chaperoned and be seen by eligible single men, and such a tradition implies a hint of romance in the air during the Lantern Festival celebrations.
Echoing the delicate romantic atmosphere, the poet Ouyang Xiu of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) wrote a poem entitled
Sheng Cha Zi:

The flower market was bright as day.
The moon had climbed the willow tops.
At twilight end he came my way.
At this year’s Lantern Festival
Moonlight and lamplight shine no less.
I have not seen my last year’s love.
Tears wet the sleeves of my Spring dress.

In that way, along with the lion dances and festive food that characterize the Spring Festival, people find time on the following Lantern Festival or Yuanxiao Festival not only for a spree but also for a little romance.
Gu Zheng solo by Bei Bei – Lantern Festival Performance, 2007
1, “Spring of Snowy Mountain”
2, “Young Sprout”

The guzheng, also spelled gu zheng or gu-zheng and also called zheng is a Chinese plucked zither. It has 16-18 strings and movable bridges.
The guzheng is a similar instrument to many Asian instruments such as the Japanese koto, the Mongolian yatga, the Korean gayageum and the Vietnamese đàn tranh.
The guzheng should not to be confused with the guqin (another ancient Chinese zither with a fewer number of strings and without bridges).

Bei Bei is an internationally acclaimed Gu Zheng performer, composer and educator who was born in Chengdu, China and now resides in Southern California. Bei Bei performs solo and in various ensembles as a classical performer. Alongside, as a crossover artists, she has been collaborating with musicians from many different genres such as Jazz, Electronica, Pop, Hip-Hop, etc.

I wish all Chinese people and all who celebrate it
May the New Year bring you luck and happiness!
Best wishes,
Angela Nilsson


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