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UPDATED: June 20, 2014 NO. 8 FEBRUARY 20, 2014
In Love With the Past
China greets its Lantern Festival holding a bouquet of red roses behind its back
By Pan Xiaoqiao

As for how this particular custom came about, the most widely accepted explanation comes from Buddhism.

When Buddhism was introduced to China during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 B.C. -A.D.220), the Emperor Mingdi (A.D.28-75) decreed that on the night of the full moon of the first lunar month, lanterns should be lit to honor Buddha in the palace and the temples. Later this custom was copied among the average people and carried on generation after generation till today. Ever since, streets in the cities and towns are hung with red lanterns, and people come out to watch and appreciate lanterns whenever the festival comes.

On the night of Yuanxiao Festival, people watch dragon and lion dances and play games, with riddles being the most popular.

Riddles are written down on small pieces of paper pasted on lanterns. People come to look at the lanterns and try to work out the answers.

Like many of China's traditional festivals, Yuanxiao Festival also has its own special food—yuanxiao, which are filled with a variety of both sweet and savory fillings. Sweet fillings are usually made of sugar, walnuts, sesame, rose petals, or bean paste. Savory varieties tend to be filled with minced meat, vegetables or a mixture of both. Yuanxiao are round, symbolizing the full moon and thus family unity and happiness.

Meanwhile, in a country with many ethnic groups, Yuanxiao Festival is celebrated not only by the Han people, but also by 16 of its 55 minority ethnic groups, such as those of the Mongolian, Tibetan, Man, Hui and Korean peoples.

Email us at: panxiaoqiao@bjreview.com

Origins of Yuanxiao Festival

Yuanxiao marks the first time the full moon is seen after the lunar New Year. Yuan in Chinese literally means first, while Xiao refers to the night.

The festival's origins are known to stretch back to at least 2,000 years ago, though there are several legends concerning what the festival originally celebrated. One of the most popular stories says that Yuanxiao was the time to worship the God of Heaven. In ancient China, it was believed that the God of Heaven controlled the destiny of the human world. He had 16 dragons at his beck and call, and he would inflict drought, storms, famine or pestilence upon human beings according to his whims. Beginning with Qin Shi Huang (about 259-210 B.C.), the first emperor to unite China as a whole, all subsequent emperors ordered extravagant ceremonies each year on this day. The emperors would pray that the God of Heaven would bring favorable weather and good health.

According to Records of the Grand Historians by Sima Qian (about 135-86 B.C.) during the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 9), rituals were already held in the palace to worship the God of Heaven. Emperor Wendi (202-157 B.C.) announced that the day would be celebrated as the Yuanxiao Festival. In 104 B.C., Emperor Wudi (156-87 B.C.), grandson of Wendi, proclaimed it one of the most important celebrations.

Meanwhile, there are also more scientific explanations of the beginning of this festival. China's traditional calendar is closely related to the phases of the moon. The moon becomes full on the 15th day of each lunar month and in Chinese culture the full moon symbolizes unity and perfection.

As a primarily agrarian country since ancient times, many traditional festivals and customs have connections to agriculture. Usually, Yuanxiao Festival is seen as the end of the year's Lunar New Year celebrations, because by this time, spring has already come and agricultural work will soon begin.

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