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Chinese New Year: Origins of the Lantern Festival


Chinese New Year: Lantern Festival

Thousands of lanterns are simultaneously launched during Chinese New Year In Pingxi, Taiwan.

Lauren Mack / About.com

Colorful lanterns fueled with flickering flames float and bob against the infinite night sky across Asia. From Taiwan to China New Year’s celebrations culminate with a feast for the senses: a glowing spectacle of lanterns, cacophonous firecrackers, and mouthwatering food.

While Spring Festival occurs mid-January to mid-February (depending on the lunar calendar), the two-week holiday culminates with the Lantern Festival (元宵節, Yuánxiāo Jié). There are several stories about the origins on the Lantern Festival.


One of the many legends, centering around gods, about the origin of the Lantern Festival attributes the festival to Taiyi, the ancient god of heaven. Taiyi had 16 dragons and used them to control the destiny of the human world. Emperor Qinshihuang, who first united China, held the first Lantern Festival to ask Taiyi for good weather and health.

Roots in Taoism:

Another explanation for the Lantern Festival is rooted in Taoism. Tianguan, the god of good fortune, has a birthday that coincides with the Lantern Festival. Since Tianguan enjoys entertainment, revelers put on various types of entertainment in the hopes of good fortune; thus leading to what became known as the Lantern Festival.

Jade Emperor:

Another story centers on the Jade Emperor whose favorite crane flew down to Earth and was subsequently hunted and killed. Furious, the Jade Emperor planned a firestorm as retaliation. However, the emperor’s daughter warned the villagers first. The villagers were not sure what to do to protect themselves.

A wise man from a neighboring village suggested the villagers hang red lanterns outside their homes, make bonfires, and light firecrackers for three days. The plan worked. On the day of the retaliation, the Jade Emperor was tricked into thinking the village was already ablaze.

Yuan Xiao:

There once was a maid named Yuan Xiao, who was a maid in the emperor’s palace during the Han Dynasty. One day a man heard her crying as she was about to jump to her death. She was depressed because she never got the chance to see her family so she wanted to die. The man promised to help her see her family again.

To do so, he set up a fortune-telling booth in town and everyone who went seeking their fortune was given the same fortune: a fire would occur on January 15. He said the God of Fire would send a fairy dressed in red to burn down the town. The fairy would be riding a black horse. Then, Yuan Xiao pretended to be the fairy. She came to town Jan. 13 with a decree to give to the emperor informing him the city would be burned down.

The emperor didn’t know what to do, so he asked the man for advice. He told the emperor that the God of Fire liked to eat tangyuan (湯圓). Tangyuan are sweet, round dumpling made with glutinous rice flour and filled with sweet sesame, peanut, or red bean paste. The man said everyone in town should make tangyuan to worship the God of Fire and also hang red lanterns and light firecrackers. Then, everyone should walk outside to see the decorations.

The emperor followed the instructions. Yuan Xiao’s parents were among the people who came to the emperor’s palace to admire the decorations. While there, they were reunited with Yuan Xiao and the emperor declared the day a success and turned it into an annual holiday. Since Yuan Xiao cooked the best tasting tangyuan, the festival became known as Yuan Xiao.


The story of a ferocious human-eating beast is told here.

How the Lantern Festival Has Changed Over Time:

The Lantern Festival began as a way to appreciate the first full moon of the New Year, which occurs on Jan. 15 in the lunar calendar. In ancient times, it was believed that thousands of lanterns should be hung outside to pay homage to the moon. People, especially children, also carried small lantern as they took strolls in their villages.

Over centuries the Chinese Lantern Festival has evolved from a one day festival in ancient times to a 10-day festival in the 15th century under Emperor Chengzu to a 14-day festival in last century.

As the festival grew older, the lanterns have become larger and more elaborate. The first festivals featured small, hand-held paper lanterns with small wax candles inside. Nowadays, lanterns come in all shapes and sizes – from paper and bamboo globes to spheres and animal shapes to pyrotechnic metal and neon structures.

The sky lanterns seen at festivals worldwide are attributed to Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮), who floated smaller versions as a way to communicate military intelligence during the Three Kingdoms Period; therefore, the lanterns are also called Kong Ming after Zhuge’s nickname, Kong Ming. Still others believe the lanterns are called Kong Ming because they are the same shape as Kong Ming’s hats in his portraits.

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