Chinese New Year and the Lantern Festival

© Philippe LEJEANVRE 

There seems to be some rendition of the Lantern Festival happening in every city around the time of the Chinese New Year. But while they make for great Instagram content, not a lot of people know what the lanterns actually symbolize.

In the lunisolar Chinese calendar, this celebration—called Yuanxiao in Mandarin—falls on the final, or 15th day of the first lunar month (typically in February or early March on the Gregorian calendar). It marks the end of Chinese New Year festivities with a party under the full moon.

History of the Lantern Festival

Most Chinese festivals have an ancient story behind them and the age-old Lantern Festival is no different. The legend behind this annual tradition has several iterations, but one of the most widely known is the story of a young girl working in the Chinese emperor's palace.

As the legend goes, Yuanxiao worked as a maid. Despite her opulent lifestyle, she missed her family and desired only to be home during Chinese New Year. As a ploy to sneak out, she told the emperor that the God of Fire had visited her and told her that he planned to burn down the city. She then suggested that the emperor should make the city look like it was already burning so the God of Fire wouldn’t bother them.

The emperor took the threat seriously and had the entire court and city put up colored lanterns and light firecrackers to mimic a great fire. The palace was so busy with the preparations that Yuanxiao was able to sneak home. These days, Yuanxiao is the name of the dumplings people eat during this holiday.

What to Expect

If you've never experienced a Lantern Festival in China, then you might be imagining a bunch of red paper lanterns hanging from strings along storefronts and houses. In reality, this is far from the actual illuminations that appear in cities and towns around the country.

In Shanghai, for instance, lanterns are themed around the animal that corresponds with the Chinese Zodiac for that particular year. Some lanterns take the form of hanging shapes — from flowers to fish — between the eaves of buildings. Enormous, illuminated displays decorate the plazas and courtyards within the Yuyuan Bazaar outside of the Yu Garden. A large zodiac animal in one of the courtyards is a regular highlight.

Along the pathways in front of Shanghai's Huxinting teahouse, there are beautifully illuminated dragons curling around each pole and displays portraying different historical and cultural stories in the water below. Every city celebrates with different decorations, traditions, and themes.

Lantern Festivals in China

  • China's largest and most lavish Lantern Festival is in Nanjing in the province of Jiangsu. Thousands of colorful lanterns both traditional and modern decorate the banks of the Qinhuai River and the Confucian Temple.
  • In Chengdu (in the province of Sichuan), the celebration takes place annually at Culture Park and locals keep their eyes out for their favorites. The "Dragon Pole" (a dragon twisted around a 125-foot pole) has become a popular mainstay.
  • Shanghai also has a big celebration in Yu Garden and surrounding areas. While traditional lanterns are typically made of paper and wood, bigger cities like Shanghai have adopted more modern versions in neon colors.
  • Hangzhou (in the province of Zhejiang) hosts another big celebration in the style of Shanghai's, again with the modern lanterns and neon lights.
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