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When lanterns and valentines meet
2014-02-14
By Zhang Qian

To light lanterns or romance a sweetheart — that’s the choice tonight, which is both the traditional Lantern Festival and Valentine’s Day night.

Or, to spend the evening in a carnival atmosphere under the first full moon of the new lunar year — or spend it with a special someone.

Some people may do both, concluding the 15-day Chinese lunar New Year celebration on the Lantern Festival (Yuanxiao Jie) — and appreciating lanterns hand in hand with a good friend.

Apart from candlelight dinners, chocolate and roses, people can visit colorful lantern displays, enjoy sweet tangyuan rice dumplings, and carry traditional rabbit-shaped lanterns in community parades. Rabbit lanterns symbolize the bunny that lives on the moon.

Interestingly, the Lantern Festival was also a romantic day in ancient China, a once-a-year opportunity for single young people to encounter possible sweethearts while strolling around to appreciate lanterns.

Girls were not permitted to leave their house, except during the Lantern Festival when groups of chaperoned girls could join crowds in gazing at lanterns — and keep an eye out for attractive youths, who also were eyeing them.

Traditional festivals featured lantern exhibitions, dragon dances, lion dances, “land boat” dances, stilt-walking, acrobatic performances, colorful “twisting” Yangko folk dances from northern China, and other performances.

Today most of the traditions have faded out, except for special performances, but lantern appreciation continues, as does riddle guessing.

Simple riddles are pasted on lanterns and passersby try to answer them, sometimes winning a prize.

The annual lantern exhibition at Shanghai’s Yuyuan Garden is always crowded with locals and tourists. Some parks also organize lantern appreciation and performances.

A giant lantern shaped like a horse for the Year of the Horse, and other zodiac animals for other years, is always the center of attraction. Other lanterns are shaped like other creatures and figures from mythology, telling legends and stories.

Shanghai’s two major lantern exhibitions are at Yuyuan Garden and Guyi Garden, both running through February 17.

The Lantern Festival dates back to the Han Dynasty (AD 206-220) more than 2,000 years ago when Emperor Hanwu established the day for a sacrificial ceremony to Taiyi, the God of Heaven. It was a day to pray for luck and prosperity in the New Year.

Gradually it became a carnival for ordinary people.

“The Lantern Festival is more exuberant and cheerful than the Lunar New Year’s Eve reunion,” says Tian Zhaoyuan, professor of anthropology and folk customs at East China Normal University. “Most people gather in their communities, in the streets and markets and celebrate with friends and strangers. But New Year’s Eve is focused on family reunion.”

The Lantern Festival became increasingly important in ancient times. It lasted one day in the Han Dynasty, three days in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), five days in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and 10 days in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Other religious traditions are reflected in the festival, such as the Taoist celebration of the birthday of Tian Guan, the Heavenly Official, and the Buddhist ritual of lighting lanterns to appreciate Buddhist relics.

Many Chinese prefer origin legends about humans evading heavenly punishment. The story goes that a beautiful crane lost its way and was accidentally killed by humans in battle against monsters.  The Supreme God was so enraged that he ordered the Heavenly Legion to set fire to the earth on the 15th day of the first lunar month as punishment. The god’s kind daughter warned mortals in advance. An old man then urged every family to light lanterns, firecrackers and fireworks continuously from 14th to 16th day, giving the illusion that the world was ablaze, making heavenly punishment unnecessary.

The trick worked, the world was saved and people continued to mark the day every year with lanterns, fireworks and firecrackers.

“It was a day when people could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of carnival,” says Professor Tian. “All cheerful activities were encouraged.”

The essential food is tangyuan, round, glutinous rice dumplings with typically sweet stuffings of sesame, red bean paste, nuts, jujube, or hawthorn. Some stuffing is made of pork. The round shape symbolizes completion, unity and family reunion.

The dumplings are usually boiled, but in some places there are fancy snacks of fried, backed and steamed tangyuan.

A famous Shanghai snack is leisha tangyuan or ground sand rice dumpling. The boiled stuffed dumplings are rolled in fragrant peanut powder, which resembles beach sand.

Over the years, regional customs have added color, but many of them are unknown today.

Placing a poplar branch above a house doorway and placing a bowl of congee and chopsticks on the doorstep are said to treat the Door God and help protect the family in the new year.

In the north, most women — both young and old — put on new clothes and walked around together during the Lantern Festival. They were supposed to cross every bridge they encountered because that was supposed to dispel dangerous “pathogenic” forces and protect their health.

Sending lanterns or deng to childless families was a way of blessing them and expressing wishes for children, especially boys. The reason: the pronunciation of deng is similar to that of ding, which means men.

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