Posted by: coolerbecky | March 6, 2010

Chinese Sweethearts

It was recently brought to Cooler Becky’s attention that while her description of the events pertaining to the last day of Chinese New Year are technically correct, they are somewhat incomplete. Therefore, Cooler Becky has decided that this festival warrants its own post.

The Last Day of Chinese New Year always coincides with the first full moon of the year. In China, the festival is known as Yuan Xiao Jie, or the Lantern Festival; but it is known simply as Chap Goh Mei, or the Fifteenth Day, in parts of Southeast Asia. The festival is one of two festivals involving lanterns in the Chinese calendar, the other being the mid-Autumn festival, but I’ll write more about that later1.

There are many origin stories for the Lantern Festival, most of them dealing with the similar theme of tricking something or someone into believing that China is on fire. In the interests of saving time, I will only write what seems to be the most popular explanation for the festival…

Once upon a time, a very pretty and beautiful bird flew down from heaven to earth. The Chinese people being what they are, it was promptly killed and eaten by a bunch of villagers. Unfortunately, the bird happened to be the Jade Emperor’s2 favourite pet. Since he liked the bird so much and was quite peeved at its death, the Jade Emperor very kindly sent his daughter to inform everyone involved that he had decided to blow China up in its memory.

This news was not recieved well and all of China was in despair3. Eventually, a wise man came up with a cunning plan. Every household in China was to hang red lanterns around their houses, set up controlled bonfires in the streets and explode firecrackers non-stop for three days. The glow from the red lanterns and the noise from the exploding crackers gave the appearance that China was already on fire.

When the Jade Emperor looked down upon the Earth from the heavens, he crossed “Blow Up China” off his to-do list and thus, China was saved.

Obviously, the most important part of the Lantern Festival is the lanterns and the parades – and boy do they come in spades. On the night of the festival, people decorate their houses with lanterns and children walk the streets carrying paper lanterns4. The lanterns come in many shapes and sizes, the most common being the basic accordion folded lantern. Many cities and towns hold lantern-making competitions for the best-looking handmade lanterns.

One of the most fascinating traditions, however, is the flying of sky lanterns. Sky lanterns are airborne paper lanterns constructed out of oiled paper and bamboo. The lanterns are constructed in a manner similar to that of the hot air balloon and run on the same principle. When lit, the lanterns take to the air effortlessly and stay afloat so long as the candle within continues to burn, landing only when the candle has burned out. In Taiwan, the floating of sky lanterns is a major yearly event and hundreds are let to float in the air on the night of the festival, creating a beautiful and almost surreal atmosphere as these lanterns hang and glide gently in the air without the help of strings. These lanterns are actually not too difficult to make, but take quite a lot of effort.

Like most Chinese festivals, the Lantern Festival has its own festival food, a rice dumpling called Yuan Xiao (named after the festival) or Tang Yuan (sweet dumplings). These circular dumplings are usually served in a sweet syrup and can come with a variety of fillings such as osmanthus flowers, black sesame seed paste, red bean paste and even peanut butter! These dumplings are made out of glutinous rice flour and are actually quite difficult to make, but I’ve managed to find a recipe for them at Diana’s Desserts.

Another thing of note about the Lantern Festival is that it is considered to be a Chinese version of Valentines Day and most of the rituals and traditions associated with it are related to matchmaking and romance, which is may seem odd because none of its dozens of origin stories even remotely mentions romance. There is a reason for this.

In ancient times, the Lantern Festival was one of the only times in which young women of marriageable age were allowed to roam the streets outside of the family home at night with no curfew! It was also one of the only days in the year where a woman could appear in public with her feet unbound. As the case may be, where there are young women, there will also be young men. Matchmakers would roam the streets, attempting to pair up single men and women who were out on the festival night, leading to the inevitable association between the Lantern Festival and romance.

One of the most popular romantic traditions is the riddle game. Lanterns made for the festival are painted with riddles. Traditionally, the riddles would have been made up by women, with men guessing the answer. Nowadays, the riddles are set by a central committee5 and couples often try guessing the answers to the lanterns together.

In Southeast Asia, young unmarried women gather together at the sea shores to throw tangerines into the sea in hopes that somebody will pick them up. If their tangerine is picked up, they are assured a good spouse in the future. Although nobody really knows why or how this custom came about, this tradition is still pretty well attended.

This isn’t to say that the Lantern Festival is only for unmarried women, married couples can take advantage of the romantic atmosphere as well! There’s actually an old tradition in which married couples would light a red and white candle by their bed just prior to lovemaking on the night of the Lantern Festival. If the white candle burns out first, their next child will be a boy. If the red one does, it’ll be a girl.

So, that’s Lantern Festival in a quick wrap. We hope that this cultural lesson has been as enlightening for you as it was for Cooler Becky. Now run along now, I’m sure you have some romancing to do.

1…and by later, Cooler Becky really means in mid-Autumn. So, stay tuned until the 22nd of September!
2For those of you who have forgotten, the Jade Emperor is the biggest bigshot in Chinese mythology.
3絶望をした! 中国すべてと爆破されて私に絶望をした!
4With the advent of modern technology, plastic battery-operated lanterns are becoming pretty popular as well.
5Modern women are too busy working and doing important things to sit around at home making up silly riddles about peonies in bushes.


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