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Lantern Festival History and Traditions Posted by on Feb 14, 2014 in Culture, festivals, food, history, Vocabulary

Today marks the fifteenth and final day of the Spring Festival, also known as Chinese New Year. Known as the Lantern Festival (元宵节 – yuán xiāo jié), the Chinese name can be broken down as such – the character 元 means the first lunar month, and 宵 means “night.” A full moon shines brightly on this night, but that’s not the only light you’ll see up in the sky – red lanterns and numerous fireworks also illuminate the night sky. Let’s learn a little bit more about the history and traditions associated with this Chinese holiday:

Photo by Ting W. Chang from www.flick.com

Photo by Ting W. Chang from www.flick.com


As is true with most Chinese festivals, there are many legends as to how this holiday developed. One such tale states that the first emperor of China, Qinshihuang (秦始皇 – qín shǐ huáng), ordered elaborate ceremonies to honor Taiyi (太乙 – tài yǐ), the God of the Heavens. The idea behind the ceremonies was that Taiyi would bring good health and good weather to the people. Later on, in the Han Dynasty, the emperor Wudi (汉武帝 – hàn wǔ dì) made it an official holiday. However this holiday came to be, it is still an integral part of Chinese culture thousands of years later.


Photo by Jakob Montrasio www.flickr.com

Photo by Jakob Montrasio

Back in the Han Dynasty, Buddhism became very popular in China. In order to show respect for Buddha, the emperor ordered lanterns to be lit in the palace. During later dynasties, this custom became commonplace amongst all people. These days, you can see lanterns of all shapes and sizes hanging in homes, businesses, and parks all around China. One thing that most lanterns have in common is the color, as red represents good fortune. One interesting custom associated with these is the practice of solving lantern riddles (猜灯谜 – cāi dēng mí). Here is an example of one such riddle:

Riddle: What building has the most stories?
Tip: Thing
Answer: Library


A special food is prepared for this holiday – glutinous rice balls called either tangyuan (汤圆 – tāng yuán) or yuanxiao (元宵 – yuán xiāo) in Chinese. These tasty little morsels come with a variety of fillings – they differ according to the region – and can be boiled, fried, or steamed. They symbolize family unity and happiness, so people like to get together with their loved ones to eat a big bowl of them and admire the lanterns and the full moon.


A typical lion dance.

A typical lion dance.

Another important tradition for this festival is watching a lion dance (舞狮 – wǔ shī). The lion is a symbol of boldness and strength, so these performances  are meant to give just that to the people. During the Lantern Festival, you might also see people walking high up on stilts, another kind of folk art that is associated with the holiday.


As the Lantern Festival marks the last day of the Spring Festival, it’s also the last chance to set off fireworks, as they officially become illegal once the holiday is finished. The result is that city’s all across China sound like a war zone all night, with fireworks going off constantly. After two whole weeks of non-stop fireworks, many are happy to see the Spring Festival come to an end. See for yourself what the holiday looked like in my neighborhood a few years ago:

Practice your Chinese listening and reading skills by watching this helpful video about the holiday:


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About the Author:sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


  1. Lei:

    Riddle: What building has the most stories?
    Tip: Thing
    Answer: Library

    Guess that should be a English riddle, not Chinese… 🙂

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