Lanterns light up the festival
The Lantern Festival marks the final day of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Tomorrow, glutinous rice balls will be the centerpiece dish in most Chinese households.
Falling on the 15th day of the first month on the lunar calendar, the Lantern Festival has a history of more than 2,000 years.
It’s said that Emperor Wen of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) created the festival after squashing a revolt led by the Lu family that ended on the 15th day of the first lunar month. He ordered that the day be a celebration for all the people and households would hang lanterns to display their cheerful spirit.
Emperor Wu, Wen’s grandson, designated the Lantern Festival as an official imperial worship of Taiyi, or the Great Oneness, the highest Taoist god and controller of the destiny of the humanity.
Taiyi was the first god described in “Jiu Ge,” or “Nine Songs,” an ancient set of poems first published under the title “Chu Ci (Songs of Chu)”.
In the legend, Taiyi was the god making decisions regarding when to inflict drought, storms, famine or pestilence upon humans.
Since the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), ceremonies had been held to worship Taiyi and the emperors would ask him for favorable weather and good health for them and their people.
When Sima Qian, a historian during Emperor Wu’s reign, created the Taichu calendar, which was a revolution in Chinese calendar tradition, the Lantern Festival was already an important holiday.
Special events are hosted to celebrate the Lantern Festival, which is also the first full moon of the new year. The most important tradition in celebrating the Lantern Festival, from ancient times to today, is displaying colorful lanterns.
The lanterns can be made of various materials from paper, glass and even jade, and they are painted with eye-catching figures, animals and tales. Lantern fairs immerse visitors in an ocean of traditional and creative designs.
Solving lantern riddles is another fun activity during the festival.
The riddles are often written on red strips of paper that are then fixed onto the lanterns, attached by strings. In the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), guessing riddles was a contest of wisdom among men, and in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), people from all walks of life took part in the game.
The ancient riddles were very difficult to solve, as they required a significant amount of classical knowledge and wit. The answer could be a single word, a verse from a poem, a name or object. Today, the riddles are simpler and also include puns and homophones.
In southwestern provinces, some people have the tradition of holding torches made from tree branches and dancing in the fields with the hope of driving away the pests and beasts and praying for a good harvest in the coming year. This custom was widely practiced in the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties.
The boat dance is another Lantern Festival custom in Shaanxi, Shanxi and Hebei provinces that imitates the moves of rowing a boat on land. The boat is usually made from two thin boards carved in the shape of a boat, then wrapped in colorful fabric and attached to the performer’s waist. The boat dance is usually performed by females.
Traditional lion and dragon dances are also staged in some places to celebrate the Lantern Festival, as they are auspicious figures in Chinese culture.
The length of the festival varied in different dynasties. In the Tang Dynasty, the lanterns were displayed for three days and the emperors lifted the curfew so people could enjoy the good times, while in the Song Dynasty, the festival was celebrated for five days. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) hosted the longest celebrations — people would light their lanterns on the eighth day of the first lunar month and take them down on the 17th.
In today’s fast-paced urban lifestyle, for many people the Lantern Festival celebrations have been reduced to having a bowl of glutinous rice balls, especially in Shanghai where streets aren’t decorated with lanterns and not everyone have the chance to visit lantern shows in the city’s parks.
The holiday staple appeared in the folk culture of the Song Dynasty as a novel food, and it was first named fuyuanzi because the glutinous rice balls float up and down in boiling water. Businessmen would also call the glutinous rice balls yuanbao, which means a shoe-shaped gold ingot.
The glutinous rice balls are made and named differently across China.
In the north, they are known as yuanxiao and the craftsmanship of making them is more complicated. The first step is mixing a filling with ground black sesame, peanuts, red bean paste or jujube paste with sugar and oil, then making smaller balls to be chilled in the fridge so the texture hardens. The fillings are dipped in water and then rolled around in glutinous rice flour in a big bamboo basket until the balls are coated evenly, then dipped in water again and rolled in the flour, a step repeated five to six times before the yuanxiao is ready to be boiled and served.
In the south, the dish is called tangyuan and it’s made in a similar way as dumplings, by putting the fillings in wrappers made of glutinous rice flour and water, then rolled around to form the ball.
The fillings can be sweet or savory, with the sweet versions usually made of black sesame, osmanthus flowers or peanuts and the savory balls made of pork and vegetables.
The freshly rolled yuanxiao takes longer time to cook and the filling is usually harder in texture. Its layer of glutinous rice flour is looser, while tangyuan is smoother and chewier.
There are also creative tangyuan dishes that change the traditional ingredients and recipes. A popular product today is crystal tangyuan, which replaces the glutinous rice flour with tapioca flour or lotus root starch, so the rice balls become transparent when cooked in boiling water. The crystal tangyuan also have creative fillings including purple sweet potato, fruit, matcha, chocolate and more.
Some people would also make tangyuan in different shapes, like the adorable kitty’s paw, bear and piggy.
Lantern fairs in Shanghai
In Shanghai, there are lantern shows and events to celebrate the festival. In addition to activities hosted in communities, you can check out these two large-scale celebrations:
The 2018 Yu Garden lantern show until March 5 features nearly 1,000 lanterns in four themes, decorating the top tourist destination with both traditional and creative lantern designs. The lanterns are lit up every night from 5:30pm.
Address: 137 Anren St.
Nanxiang Old Street is hosting Spring Festival and Lantern Festival celebrations until March 11 that include lantern shows, puzzle games, a Chinese paper-cutting exhibition and various performances.
Address: 206 Jiefang St., Nanxiang Town, Jiading District