The Lantern Festival yuan xiao jie or the Feast of the First Full Moon, falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month. In olden times the celebrations began several days after the first day of the new year and usually continued to about the 18th, perhaps even longer in certain rural areas, thus bringing the Spring Festival Season to a fitting climax. The people of each household celebrated it simply or elaborately in keeping with their financial status and their cultural level.
According to some sources, the Lantern Festival seems to have originated in ancient times as a ceremony to usher in the increasing light and warmth of the sun after the winter's cold. Another possibility is that it was originally a ceremony to pray for rains for the spring planting. Historical records from various periods dating back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) reflect the changes in the content of Lantern Festival celebrations over time. The description of a lantern festival in a book published in 1868 reads:
'The sale of fancy paper lanterns preceding the Feast of Lanterns commences usually about the tenth or eleventh day and reaches its culmination on the evening of the 14th or the 15th... The evening is the time when the largest quantity is exhibited to tempt purchasers when the streets are more densely crowded with spectators and buyers... Some of the lanterns are cubical, others round like a ball, or circular, square, flat and thin, or oblong, or in the shape of various animals, quadruped and biped. Some are so cunningly constructed as to roll on the ground as a fireball,. others, such as cocks and horses, are made to go on wheels; still others, when lighted up by a candle or oil, have a rotary or revolving motion of some of their fixtures within.... Some are constructed principally of red paper, on which small holes are made in lines, so as to form a Chinese character of auspicious import, as happiness or longevity.. These, when lighted up, show the form of the character very plainly. Other lanterns are made in a human shape, and intended to represent children or some objects of worship, as the Goddess of Mercy, some are made to be carried in the hand by means of a handle, others to be placed on a wall or the side of a room. They are gaudily painted with blue, red, and yellow colors, the red usually predominating, as that is a symbol of joy and festivity. The most expensive and the prettiest are covered with gauze or thin white silk, in which historical scenes or individual characters have been elaborately painted... thus adding to one's enjoyment.'
In the old days, those who were well off would decorate their houses as brilliantly as possible with lanterns and also set off many firecrackers. The usual practice on the evening of the 15th was for a family to offer prayers to certain deities and then to hold a great feast amid revelry and much imbibing. Furthermore, respectable married women were granted a freedom that evening unknown at any other time; normally they were confined strictly to their homes; because of Lantern Festival they could go out in the evening to view the display of lanterns.
Many of the customs associated with Lantern Festival have to do with eating, as is true with, most of China's traditional festivals. One food-related custom common both past and present is the eating of tang yuan, or yuan xiao as it is called in the north, glutinous rice-flour balls with many types of sweet filling in a soup.
Lantern Festival did not of course only mean eating to the Chinese. There were again also many types of colourful and exciting performances for people to enjoy. After an interruption of the cultural revolution (1966-1976) the old customs have gradually revived. (During the Cultural Revolution many ways of expressing traditional Chinese culture, including such performances, were attacked because of their supposed feudal, capitalist or revisionist content.) Now in Beijing there is once again a great lantern festival. In the villages near the capital there are stilt dances, yao gu (waist drum), and boat dances. Most widespread of all are the dragon dance and lion dance, though the stilt dancers with their carnival spirit were and are very popular. These groups of men, some with false beards and painted faces, and others masquerading as women, cavort about.
The lion dance, perhaps the dance most beloved by the Chinese people, is probably derived from itinerant Indian jugglers and animal trainers who first appeared in China during the Tang dynasty. Since live lions weren't available, a cloth one served their purpose. With one man manipulating the wooden head and another the hindquarters, they developed a dance called the Game of the Lion, which in its earliest form was a demon-expelling ritual. The lion symbolized a Bodhisattwa and acted as a guardian of Buddhism.
Gilt bronze figure of a palace girl holding a dark lantern
Held in the hands of the squatting palace girl, the lantern is so ingeniously designed that the hood running into the sleeve of the girl conceals a funnel which allows the lampblack to be collected in the cavity of the figure, thereby preventing it from polluting the air in the room. The parts of the lantern are detachable for easy cleaning while the movable shade and base make it possible to control the internsity and the shaft of the light at will. Early Western Han (206BC to AD 24). Height 48cms. Unearthed in 1968 from the tomb of Liu Sheng's (d. 113BC son of Emperor Jingdi) wife Dou Wan.
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 : China Now 120, Page 36
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