The 15th day of the first lunar month is the traditional Chinese Yuanxiao Festival. Because the first lunar month is also called “yuan” month; the night of the 15th day of yuan month is the first night that the moon gets full; xiao means “night,” so the festival is named Yuanxiao Festival or Shangyuan Festival, Yuanxi Festival or Lantern Festival.
The Chinese people have a custom of enjoying lanterns on Lantern Festival, which is said as “holding ceremonies of festival lantern on the 15th day of the first lunar month.” The custom come from the Taoist “Theory of There Yuan”: the 15th day of the first lunar month is Shanyuan Festival; that of the seventh lunar month is Zhongyuan Festivals; and that of the tenth lunar month is Xiyuan Festival. These three yuan are in the charge of three officials: heaven, earth and human world respectively. The official of heaven likes joyful things, so lanterns should be lit on Shangyuan Festival. The custom of lighting lanterns on Lantern Festival has already appeared in the Han Dynasty. After generations of development, more and more varieties of lanterns come into being and the forms of playing vary too, for example, there are mirror-like lanterns, phoenix lanterns, colored glaze lanterns, and so on. Apart from lighting lanterns, people also set off fireworks to go with the festival atmosphere. That “Shining trees and sparkling fireworks weaves an unsleeping night” is the description of the beautiful scenes on the night of Lantern Festival.
The game of guessing lantern riddles is also a must on the Lantern Festival. Lantern riddles are a peculiar game of the Chinese characters. The answer of a riddle is hidden behind a beautiful poem or some common sayings which are written on the paper sticked on the festival lanterns, and the visitors of the lanterns should try to find out it. It is similar to the “crosswords.” The game of guessing lantern riddles first appears in the Song Dynasty. In the capital Lin’an (now Hangzhou) of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), there would be a lot of people setting and guessing lantern riddles on every occasion of Lantern Festival. Since riddles can give people both knowledge and happiness, they are thus welcomed by all classes of the society while spreading.
As the time goes by, more and more activities are added on the Lantern Festival. In cities there are lanterns ceremonies in which all patterns of lanterns are exhibited, and in the countryside there are activities like setting off fireworks and walking on stilts. In some places there also develops some other activities such as playing the cloth lions, rowing boats on land, doing the yangge dance, playing the swings and playing taiping drums.
Eating rice glue balls is a characteristic custom of Lantern Festival. It is said that this custom originated in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). The rice glue ball is also called “tangyuan” or “yuanzi,” which is a small ball made of glutinous rice with or without stuffing (usually sugar, bean paste, hawthorn or other fried fruits). It can be boiled, fried and steamed, and each means making it tasty. The Chinese people want everything to have a happy ending, so eating glue rice balls on the night when the moon gets full for the first time in a year indicates people’s wish for a happy reunion and a peaceful life.