The Lantern Festival

Great red orbs illuminate the night sky, floating off into the distance as the full moon rises like a pearl in a sea of darkness. Each one carries the wishes, desires, and dreams of an individual, all dancing their way up to the heavens in the hopes of bringing their owners good fortune. Lanterns, those great beacons of traditional art, have become synonymous with Chinese culture. Cut from paper; carved from wood; chipped from jade; these radiant decorations are as varied as they are charming. And what better time to admire them than during the magnificent Lantern Festival?

Also known as the Yuanxiao Festival, the First Full Moon Festival, and the Shangyuan Festival, this time-honoured tradition falls on the 15th day of the first month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. This means it normally lands sometime during February or March according to our Gregorian calendar. The holiday itself falls on the night of the first full moon and marks the end of the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year period. With that in mind, you can see why the Chinese people would want their most treasured festival to go out with bang!

In Hong Kong, it is regarded as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day because, in ancient times, it was one of the few occasions where single men and women would be allowed to go out in the evening and mingle freely. Although it has lost this association throughout much of mainland China, the lonely hearts of Hong Kong still hold out hope that they’ll light a fire under more than just a lantern!


Customs related to the Lantern Festival are innumerable and varied. Folk traditions such as firework displays, lion dances, dragon dances, and stilt-walking all feature prominently, making this one of the most vibrant festivals in the Chinese canon. However, three main activities dominate the celebrations: the lighting of lanterns, the guessing of lantern riddles, and the eating of delicious tangyuan.

Over time, the colourful lanterns have become increasingly more complex and artistic, allowing artisans to showcase their unique talents. Nowadays, for safety reasons, most of them are lit using electric or neon lighting. In some cities, such as Chengdu in Sichuan province, fairs will be held where colossal lanterns in the shape of zodiac animals or figures from Chinese folklore are erected for the enjoyment of the public.

Yet some of these lanterns aren’t just for decoration! Throughout China, large groups of them will be strung up together in public parks and have small strips of paper pasted inside of them. Each piece of paper is inscribed with a riddle and locals will gather under the lanterns in order to solve them. If you think you’ve cracked one, you must take the piece of paper, find the person who wrote the riddle, and tell them your answer. Correct answers earn you a small prize, while incorrect ones mean that, like the lanterns, you’ll be hung out to dry!

If you don’t get a prize, then a hearty bowl of tangyuan is sure to cheer you up! This traditional festival food, known as yuanxiao in the north of China, is a type of glutinous rice ball that can be served plain or with filling. The Chinese people believe the round shape of these balls and the bowls they are served in symbolise family togetherness. Even the name tangyuan, which is a homophone for “tuanyuan” or “union”, suggests harmony. In short, a family who eats tangyuan together, stays together!

In the south of China, tangyuan are made by hand, with the glutinous rice being moulded into a flat circle before being wrapped around the filling. Tangyuan are usually much softer than northern yuanxiao and come in sweet and savoury varieties, with the savoury tangyuan typically being stuffed with salty fillings like minced meat and vegetables. In the north, yuanxiao are made by taking balls of filling and rolling them in wet, powdered glutinous rice until they become fully coated. They only come in sweet varieties, with fillings like red bean paste, sesame paste, jujube paste, walnut butter, or peanut butter. Depending on personal preference, these squishy treats can be boiled, fried, or steamed. The sweet version is often served in a syrupy soup, while the savoury variety comes in a clear broth.

tangyuan and yuanxiao


The decorated history of the Lantern Festival starts as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), although its origins are unclear. Some people believe it is connected to Taiyi, who was regarded as the God of Heaven in ancient times and was believed to have omnipotent control of the human world. According to legend, he commanded an army of sixteen fearsome dragons, who would inflict drought, storms, famine, or pestilence on mankind at his beck and call. The first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, would honour him every year with splendid ceremonies so that he would bestow good weather and good health on the people. During the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu paid special attention to this annual event and, in 104 BC, he marked it as an official festival of great significance, declaring that its ceremonies would last throughout the night. It was these religious ceremonies that eventually became the basis for the Lantern Festival.

tianguanAlternatively, others attribute the festival to a Taoist deity named Tianguan. Tianguan was the official of heaven who bestowed good fortune on people, and his birthday fell on the 15th day of the first lunar month. It was believed that this benevolent god enjoyed all kinds of entertainment, so worshipers would prepare a myriad of activities for his birthday as a way to pray for his good favour. After all, you can’t have a godly birthday without a party of epic proportions! This is where the name Shangyuan Festival came from, as the term “shangyuan” (上元) in Taoist philosophy denoted the time period surrounding this deity’s birthday (i.e. Spring).

By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), this festival had developed into a 3-day long affair and the Emperor had lifted the traditional curfew, meaning civilians were allowed to enjoy the lantern displays throughout the day and night. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), celebrations were extended over a 5-day period and the custom of writing riddles on lanterns had emerged. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) extended it to a whopping 10-day long extravaganza, although it was curtailed back to 3 days by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). However, it was during the Qing Dynasty that the festival’s popularity really started booming, as fireworks became a staple part of the celebrations.


With a history that stretches back over 2,000 years, it’s unsurprising that the Lantern Festival has accrued as many origin stories as there are lanterns in the sky! Each one is as diverse as the next, and they are all endowed with a peculiar charm unique to Chinese tales. One of the chief legends concerns the great Tiandi, who was the first god according to Chinese folk religion. One day, a heavenly crane descended to earth and was accidentally killed by a villager. Tiandi was enraged, as this crane had been one of his favourites. He decided that, on the 15th day of the first lunar month, he would send an army to burn the village to the ground. His daughter heard about his plan and decided to warn the villagers, who were all at a loss as to what to do.

It was then that a wise old man came forward and suggested that the villagers hang red lanterns outside of their houses, light bonfires in the streets, and set off firecrackers. He said that, from the heavenly realm, this would give the village the appearance of being on fire and hopefully fool Tiandi. Lo and behold, on the 15th lunar day, Tiandi’s army arrived and were baffled by what they saw. From above, it was clear that the village was ablaze, so they returned to Tiandi and informed him that the village had already been destroyed. Thus the village was spared and, from that day onwards, people celebrated the occasion by carrying lanterns and setting off fireworks.

Another popular legend involves a maiden named Yuan-Xiao, who supposedly worked in the imperial palace during the Han Dynasty. One cold winter’s day, the Emperor’s favourite adviser, Dongfang Shuo, was strolling through the imperial gardens when he came across Yuan-Xiao, who was weeping and preparing to throw herself into a well. Dongfang asked her why she wanted to end her life and Yuan-Xiao told him that she hadn’t seen her family since she had started working in the palace. If she couldn’t show her filial piety in this life, she would rather die. Dongfang was a kind man and said that, if she promised not to kill herself, he would find a way to reunite her with her family.

Dongfang then left the palace and disguised himself as a fortune-teller. People crowded round to ask for their fortune, but everyone was given the same prediction: an emissary of the God of Fire, dressed in red, would descend from heaven on the 13th lunar day and a catastrophic fire would burn down the city on the 15th. Rumour of this disaster spread quickly and the civilians decided that they would beg the emissary for mercy. On the 13th day, Yuan-Xiao pretended to be the emissary and, when the citizens pled with her, she demanded that they pass a decree from the God of Fire on to the Emperor.

The Emperor read the decree and, to his dismay, it stated that the city would be burned down on the 15th day. He immediately consulted Dongfang, who said that the God of Fire loved eating a sweet type of dumpling known as tangyuan, so the Emperor should command every household in the city to cook it. In order to deceive the god, every family should hang red lanterns outside of their homes and set off firecrackers so that the city would look like it was already ablaze. Finally, all of the civilians should be free to wander the streets and appreciate the decorations on the night of the 15th.

On that night, Yuan-Xiao’s parents were allowed into the palace to admire the lanterns and were reunited with their daughter. The celebration was so enjoyable that the Emperor decreed it should be practised every year and, since Yuan-Xiao cooked the best tangyuan, he named it the Yuanxiao Festival in her honour. So, the origins of the Lantern Festival may be diverse, but one thing is clear: deities love setting cities on fire and they are all easily fooled!

Dragon Boat Festival

The figures of powerful men furiously driving their dragon-headed boats through choppy waters, the crowds raucously cheering on the banks, the people ceremoniously throwing rice into the river; these iconic images of the Dragon Boat Festival have become as famous throughout the world as the loosing of the lanterns and the dragon dance during the Chinese New Year. Dragon boat races now take place across the globe, from America through to Holland, but few spectators know the tragic history behind them.

The Dragon Boat Festival, known in China as the Duanwu Festival, is over 2,000 years old and was made an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2009. It takes place on the 5th day of the 5th month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, so it is sometimes referred to as the Double Fifth Festival. This means that, according to our calendar, the dates for the festival change every year. If you’re planning a trip to China, be sure to check the festival dates for that year or you might miss it. It’s now a statutory public holiday in China, so be prepared for crowds!

The festival usually takes place on or around the summer solstice; the longest day of the year. The force of yang and the sun are considered to be at their strongest around this time. Since the sun and the Chinese dragon were both traditionally associated with masculine energy, the dragon naturally became connected to this festival. Chinese people celebrate mainly by hosting dragon boat races, eating zongzi and drinking realgar wine. However, the lively atmosphere of the festival can be misleading, as its origins are actually rather dark.


Qu YuanMost Chinese people regard the festival as a commemoration to the poet Qu Yuan (340–278 B.C.). During the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 B.C.), Qu Yuan was a loyal advisor to the king of the State of Chu. He was one of the few advisors who opposed the alliance with the State of Qin, as he was worried that his homeland would be subsumed by the Qin Empire. Soon other advisors, who supported the alliance and disliked Qu Yuan, conspired against him and he was exiled. He wrote much of his poetry in this state of exile.

In 278 B.C., the Chu capital of Yingdu fell to the Qin army. Overcome by his intense grief, Qu Yuan penned his final poem, “Embracing the Sand”, and drowned himself in the Miluo River. Local fishermen jumped in their boats and rushed down the river in an attempt to find him, but to no avail. Out of respect, locals threw packets of rice into the water to distract the fish so they would not eat his body. In one variation of the story, a local shaman threw realgar into the river in order to intoxicate a water dragon, which the fishermen promptly killed. During the festival, the dragon boat races imitate the fishermen rushing to find Qu Yuan’s body, the zongzi represent the rice packets thrown into the river, and the realgar wine symbolises the shaman’s use of realgar. Thus the celebrations are intended to pay tribute to Qu Yuan’s sacrifice.

In some parts of China people still attribute the festival to the scholar Wu Zixu. Wu Zixu was an advisor to King Fuchai of the State of Wu but tragically, like Qu Yuan, his advice went ignored. The king forced him to commit suicide and had his body thrown into the river on the fifth day of the fifth month, which some believe is why the festival is celebrated on this date. In places such as Suzhou near Shanghai, which is believed to have been part of the State of Wu, he is commemorated alongside Qu Yuan.

Some researchers believe that the stories of Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu were superimposed on to a pre-existing holiday. It is believed that Confucian scholars encouraged the promotion of these stories in order to strengthen their authority as a school of thought during a time when other belief systems were gaining influence in China. This belief is substantiated by historian Sima Qian[1], who praises both Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu but makes no mention of their connection to the festival. Since many of the festival customs focus on the avoidance and prevention of disease, researchers believe the original festival may have originated from a desire to protect the community against infectious diseases that were common during the mid-summer months.


粽子01The three main activities are the racing of dragon boats, the eating of zongzi, and the drinking of realgar wine. Zongzi are packets of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves that are filled with either savoury or sweet ingredients. The making of zongzi is a family activity and each family will normally have their own recipe and cooking method for this tasty treat. Realgar wine is made from Chinese cereal wine that has been laced with powdered realgar (a mineral made from arsenic and sulphur). Since alcohol is associated with yin, this wine will supposedly help dispel the force of yang during the summer months and thus protect the drinker from infectious diseases. That being said, it won’t protect you from getting drunk! Only adults will drink the wine; children will have the word “king” (王) drawn on their forehead or chest with the realgar slurry or will wear amulets containing realgar.

Dragon boats are so named because the fore of the boat is designed to look like a dragon’s head and the rear is carved to look like its tail. These elaborately decorated boats are truly spectacular, both resting on land and gliding through the water. During the race, a team of people will work the oars whilst one person at the front will beat a drum to keep time. The winning team will supposedly bring good luck and a good harvest to their village in the following year. The best places to see the magnificent dragon boat race are Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, Yueyang or Fenghuang Ancient Town in Hunan province, Kaili in Guizhou province, and Hong Kong.

Other, less common activities during the festival include hanging up icons of Zhong Kui (an immortal guardian figure), hanging Chinese mugwort and calamus root from windows and doors to deter mosquitoes and other insects, taking long walks, wearing perfumed incense pouches designed to ward off evil spirits, and the “making the egg stand” game. In this game, if you manage to make a raw egg stand directly upright at exactly 12:00 noon on the day of the festival, you will have good luck for the next year. If you don’t, you’ll just have raw egg all over your hands!

Several regions practise their own unique customs during the festival. For example, in Beijing all food stores will sell an item known as the “Five-Poison Cake”. This is a rose-flavoured pie with images of the five most poisonous creatures (scorpions, frogs, spiders, centipedes, and snakes) imprinted on it. Don’t worry; it’s designed to protect you from these creatures, not to poison you! Similarly, in Linqing county of Shandong province parents will make yellow cloth shoes for their children which have the five most poisonous insects painted on them. This is designed to protect the child from these insects, perhaps by giving the shoes enhanced squishing power!

[1] Sima Qian (145–90 B.C.): A famous Chinese historian whose most noted work was called Shiji or Records of the Grand Historian