China | The Lantern Festival: A dying Chinese tradition?

The Lantern Festival: A dying Chinese tradition?

Carly O'Connell January 30, 2017 6:36 PM (UTC+8)
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The Lantern Festival marks the end of the Chinese Spring Festival, occurring two weeks after Chinese New Year. As one of the five major traditional Chinese holidays (alongside Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, Tomb-Sweeping Festival, and Dragonboat Festival), I was excited to experience it first-hand when I lived in China. To my dismay, I found that the locals hardly seemed to note the holiday at all.

The Lantern Festival’s English name is derived from the tradition of hanging colorful lanterns, sometimes with riddles attached for passerby to guess for a prize. While studying abroad in Beijing in 2013, I went on a hunt across the city for such vibrant displays but did not find any. Three years later, when I lived in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, there was a beautiful electric light display at the China Dinosaur Amusement park, but no traditional lanterns, and certainly no riddles.

A similar tradition is to release floating lanterns into the sky like the scene in Disney’s Tangled. You can even write a wish on one and send it up to heaven. While this custom was recently featured in a 2016 animated Chinese film Little Door Gods, the only time I’ve witnessed it in China was at a foreigner-centered event in Changzhou organized by the local burger restaurant.

The Chinese name most often used for the holiday does not refer to lanterns at all. It is instead called the Yuanxiao Festival after small glutinous rice balls, also called tangyuan, that are often filled with sweet fillings and served in soup. Their round shape symbolizes unity, much like the mooncakes eaten on Mid-Autumn Festival. This aspect of the holiday at least was alive and well in Beijing; grocery stores were well-stocked with tangyuan throughout the winter and early spring. My friends and I enjoyed the ones with fruity centers, but passed over the more traditional flavors of black sesame paste and red bean.

One reason that the Lantern Festival may have lost favor is that it is not a federal holiday in China. Students and teachers may get an entire month off for Spring Festival, but many others have only one week. Of the five festivals listed in my opening paragraph, it is the only one not designated a public holiday. With no time to travel and visit family, Lantern festival may have lost much of its original meaning.

If you are a foreigner in China and want to find a Lantern festival event to attend, check out one of these:

• Nanjing: Qinhuai International Lantern Festival
• Beijing: Yanqing Lantern Festival Flower Exhibition
• Xiamen: Xiamen Lantern Festival
• Shanghai: Datuan Peach Garden Lantern Festival

Find more details here.

This year, the holiday falls on Saturday, February 11. Will you be celebrating?

Carly O'Connell
Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.
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