Shang Yuan Jie, The Lantern Festival

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Moon-Lanterns at the Taoist Lantern Festival in China; photo by Doa55

Shang Yuan Jie ("First Full Moon of the Year"), also known as The Lantern Festival or Chinese Lantern Festival, is celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month -- that is, on the first Full Moon after Chun Jie, the Chinese Lunar New Year. It marks the closure of the two weeks of the waxing Moon during which the Spring Festival is celebrated. The lanterns which give this festival one of its names, were traditionally made of rice paper over a frame of bamboo strips and are spherical in shape to represent the First Full Moon of the Year, which gives the festival its other name. During the 20th and 21st centuries, it has became popular to construct lanterns of all shapes and sizes, including figurative emblems of the current year's Chinese zodiac animal. The lantern festival takes place at night, and in large cities there may be tens of thousands of lanterns on display and the streets are filled with revelers, diminishing the role of the actual Full Moon to titular status.

In Taiwan, the Spring Lantern Festival takes a slightly different form, with the release of so-called "sky lanterns" or "heaven lanterns" -- essentially small hot-air balloons made of paper, with a candle flame to heat them as they fly. These may be made in traditional lantern shapes, with written prayers for heavenly blessinga and prosperity. Thousands are released at a time. The spectacular sight of these countless lanterns flying up to heaven is exhilarating, but when their fuel is exhausted, they fall to the ground, littering the countryside, so volunteers and community groups must go out to pick up the remains. The flying of sky lanterns is so popular in Taiwan that this social activity is repeated as part of the festivities at the Mid-Autumn Festival.

A bowl of Cantonese style tangyuan rice dumplings filled with sweet bean paste and surrounded by azalea flowers, which generally begin to bud at the time of the Spring Festival and are in bloom by the time of the Lantern Festival; photo by Dashu83

Shang Yuan Jie also commemorates the birth of the Taoist god Tian Guan, the Heavenly Official who bestows happiness and good luck upon people. As a celestial being, Tian Guan is associated with the star Zeta Taurii in the constellation of Taurus. Lanterns are hung in his honour, and people celebrate by solving puzzles and praying for prosperity and joy.

The traditional food of the Lantern Festival is a bowl of spherical, Full-Moon-like glutinous rice dumplings filled with a paste made from red beans, sesame, or peanut flour, served in broth. In Southern China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, this dish is called tangyuan ("round dumplings in soup") and is made in both sweetened and savoury varieties. The name tangyuan sounds like the word for "wholeness," "togetherness," or "completeness," and so this delicacy is also eaten at weddings in Southern China. In Northern China the dumplings are sweet, never savoury, the broth is a bit thicker, and their name is yuan jiao or yuanxiao ("first night [of the Full Moon at the Lantern Festival] dumplings"). Strangely, during the short reign of Yuan Shikai, the second provisional president of the Republic of China from 1912 to 1916, Yuan greatly disliked the name yuanjiao because it sounded to him like the Chinese phrase "Yuan shanchu" ("remove Yuan" -- so he ordered the entire nation of China to only refer to the dumplings by their Cantonese name, tangyuan. After his death, the Northern Chinese soon reverted to calling the dumplings yuanxiao.


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