Lanterns have always been an inherent part of the Chinese culture. A Chinese and his lantern are inseparable. Even on the brightest moonlight, Chinese consider it their duty to provide themselves with artificial light; and it is an interesting spectacle at a large fire at night to see streets filled with crowds holding lanterns aloft.
Held on the fifteen day of the first month of the Lunar Year, the Lantern Festival, also known as Yuan Xiao Festival (in Chinese, Yuan means month, Xiao means night) is always celebrated under a full moon, marking the end of Chinese New Year festivities. The Lantern Festival usually takes place in October when the weather gets cooler. At that night, thousands of colorful lanterns walk in the Chinese streets, people eat glutinous rice ball (yuanxiao), moon cakes, or cakes in the shape of horse, fish, rabbit, flowers or goddesses with fillings of sugar, orange peel, melon seeds, ham, or almonds and get together in a blissful atmosphere.
There are many legends associated to the origin of the Lantern Festival. The most common is related with the religious worship of Taiyi, the God of Heaven. Believing that Taiyi could control human lives with his sixteen dragons and bring favorable weather and good health to human instead of storms, famine, drought and plague, Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the fist emperor to unite China, organized splendid ceremonies each year. Since 104BC, Lantern Festival has become one of the most important celebrations in China.
Bearing a significance of cultural element more than a pure celebration of gala performance, the Lantern Festival owes its formal instigation to the introduction of Buddhism in Chinese culture. Emperor Ming (28-75 AD) of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) issued an order to burn the light on the fifteen day of the first month of the Lunar Year to spread Buddhism. According to tradition, celebrations were lasting three days and included banquets with a view to the moon. Besides, the influence of Indian Buddhism during the Han Dynasty featured the concept of Moon Rabbit. Also known as Jade Rabbit, the rabbit in the moon signifies immortality by standing under a magical cassia tree.
At the times of the Tang Dynasty (618AD – 907AD), the Lantern Festival was celebrated with Chinese people lighting lanterns and placing them in front of their house doors to create a luminous atmosphere. The significance of the lanterns at that period can be found at their relation to the nature as, in majority, their portrayals and shapes were illustrating agricultural produce from all over the land.
During the Sung Dynasty (906AD – 1279AD), Chinese people were floating lanterns on streams and rivers to guide the spirits of those who had drowned.
At the times of the Ming dynasty (1368AD-1644AD), people were decorating houses and gardens with lanterns and they were playing tom-toms and gongs to celebrate the Lantern Festival.
Lanterns provide great insight into Chinese history. Many of them portrayed surnames in bold Chinese calligraphy in one side and picturesque drawings on the other. Originally, such lanterns were made to differentiate families of villagers and insinuate their social status. Over time, lanterns served as number plates and doorbells as well as identifiers of a particular household or simply as lighters.
One of the most important connotations of lanterns was their view as symbols of enlightenment and blessing. Many Chinese believed that by lighting a lantern they were sending away the darkness of ignorance. Besides, the Chinese word for lantern is ‘deng’ which sounds similar to ‘deng’ referring to male authority in the household. Therefore, many Chinese hung lanterns outside their household to invite fertility and prosperity into the family.
Because of their major significance, lanterns were crafted based on the different occasions they were used for. For example, in the ancient times, dragons were the exclusive privilege of the imperial family and symbolized the divine, depriving civilians from using them. Today, lanterns are made of bamboo strips, fruits skins or leaves depending on the area and the materials available.
Also, the lanterns were inherently associated to the primary functions of the Festival, namely gathering, praying and thanksgiving. The evening before the Festival, friends would gather to eat together and drink tea or wine. The night of the Lantern festival offerings would be placed on an altar decorated with the picture of the Moon Rabbit. Praying would complete the ceremony which would be conducted by women as the moon is associated with yin, the feminine force.
Besides entertainment and beautiful lanterns, one major event taking place in the Lantern Festival is the lion dance. Being a fine traditional dance derived from the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), the lion dance echoes the skills of the dancers focusing on the animal resemblance. Performing amusing acting makes spectators have fun and enjoy Lantern Festival even more. Besides, in ancient Chinese tradition the lion symbolizes strength and boldness and protect people. Therefore, a performance of lion dance signifies a happy and fortunate life.
Another folk event is walking on stilts that originates to the Spring and Autumn period (770BC – 476BC). Performers walk on stilts and do extremely difficult moves by impersonating clowns, fishermen and monks and performing humorous acts.