Explore the Rich History and Legend of China’s Lantern Festival

Countless lanterns rising in the night sky forming an image of twinkling stars.

The Chinese Lantern Festival is known and revered by people around the world, but many don't know the legend and how it came about. (Image: Busakorn Pongparnit via Dreamstime)

The Lantern Festival, also known as the Shang Yuan Festival, is one of China’s most celebrated traditional folk festivals.

The Lantern Festival mainly involves a series of traditional folk activities, such as viewing lanterns, eating dumplings, and guessing riddles.

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In addition, many regions add traditional folk performances, such as dragon lantern parades, lion dances, stilt walking, and playing Taiping drums.

In a big country such as China, families can be split over long distances. Celebrations like the Chinese Lantern Festival are festive occasions for family reunions. (Image: Huynh Thu via Dreamstime)

The Lantern Festival is the first traditional festival in China after the New Year

It is customary to celebrate this festival by opening and viewing lanterns, which is called the “Lantern Festival.” However, although modern people celebrate the Lantern Festival every year, both the content and form have long been different from the past, and the traditional and complete folklore can only be found in surviving literary works.

The classical novel Water Margin describes the lantern-viewing scene in the most detail. The story is “set in the Northern Song Dynasty (around A.D. 1120), and tells of how a group of 108 outlaws gather at Mount Liang (or Liangshan Marsh) to rebel against the government.”

Lantern Festival customs

Southern and northern China Lantern Festival customs are roughly the same. Many habits and traditions around the festive celebration have spread throughout the country’s many regions. The common denominator is that “people go, lights do not go.” That is to say, lanterns are hung in a fixed place so that visitors can watch them as they pass by. This is why throughout China, streets and allies become softly lit by lanterns hanging along the way.

Ironically, lanterns act as both light sources and decorations that create an almost magical atmosphere that people never grow tired of.

There are numerous depictions of the festival in poems, songs, and ancient novels by writers of all generations.

This ancient tradition of celebrating the Lantern Festival by hanging lanterns in every home has been around for a long time. But in the Southern Song Dynasty, the Lantern Festival “Lantern Market” was said to be even more dazzling.

The origin and legend of the Lantern Festival

There are many opinions about the origin of the Lantern Festival. According to testimony, the Lantern Festival existed as early as 2,000 years ago in the Western Han Dynasty.

It is said that the festival was established during the reign of Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty for the purpose of “pacifying Lü.” This was in reference to a rebellion that was happening at the time.

The story goes that in 180 B.C., ministers Zhou Bo and Chen Ping removed the power of the Lü family and installed Han Wendi Liu Heng on the throne. In other words, one successor family was replaced by another. Han Wendi Liu Heng became known as Emperor Wen.

Since the day of Emperor Wen’s ascension to the throne was the 15th day of the first month and it was the end of the rebellion, it was worth commemorating. The Emperor designated the day as the lantern Festival, pardoned everyone, and celebrated with the people.

Thus, the Emperor gave a big party so that everyone would have fun and no grudges would be held.

Later on, and following this tradition, on the night of the 15th, the Emperor would leave the palace and celebrate with the people by setting alight the first lanterns.

Ever since that time, the 15th day of the first month has become the popular Lantern Festival that we have all come to know.

It is said that the festival was established during the reign of Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty for the purpose of ‘pacifying Lü.’ (Image: Daniel Budiman via Dreamstime)

From the time of the Tang Dynasty, the Lantern Festival has also been full of poetry and romance.

According to Chinese folk traditions, on the night when the moon is high in the sky, people not only light up thousands of colored lanterns to celebrate, but also go out to enjoy the moon, light lanterns, set off fireworks, guess lantern riddles, and eat together at the Lantern Festival, which becomes a large happy family reunion.

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