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Lantern Festival in the eyes of Chinese literati

Author  :  REN GUANHONG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-03-02

Villagers are performing a traditional dragon dance in Meizhou, Guangdong Province, during the 2018 Lantern Festival. Photo: CFP

The Lantern Festival, which falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, marks the first full moon of the new lunar year and the end of the Chinese New Year celebration. The traditons of the Lantern Festival can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), and the celebrations were gradually enriched, expanded, and settled in succeeding dynasties, but appreciating lanterns and solving riddles on the lanterns has always played a leading role. As a day that is full of folk traditions, cultural significance, and various festivities, the Lantern Festival has inspired Chinese literati for millennia.

History of lantern displays

Shen Congwen (1902–1988) is one of the greatest lyric novelists in modern China. His prose “Lanterns of the Lantern Festival,” written in 1963, gave a vivid introduction to the history of festive lanterns in China.

“The major event of the Lantern Festival was appreciating lanterns. Record of Jingchu (a 6th-century record of festivals and customs around the middle stretches of the Yangtze River), seems to mention the tradition of enjoying lantern displays [at the time the book was written]. More detailed records dated back to the early Tang Dynasty (618–907) and were enriched during the Song Dynasty (960–1279)…During the Song era, the places for displaying and selling lanterns during the Lantern Festival holidays had a fixed title: Dengshi (lantern market), and were endowed with more functions. The lantern markets during the Tang and Song period were viewed as the most magnificent in ancient China. According to the Song-Dynasty book The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor and other records, the Song-period lantern markets were usually opened from the fifteenth to the nineteenth day of the first lunar month. The structure of the Aoshan lanterns, a stepped hill of lanterns piled in the shape of a huge legendary turtle, was usually built up ahead. This structure was about several zhang (a Chinese unit of distance which equaled 3.168 meters during the Song) high, festooned with tens of thousands of colorful lanterns. On the day of the Lantern Festival, the emperor took a ride in an open sedan chair, carried by several eunuchs. In order to watch people and appreciate the lanterns from all directions, they marched backwards on the street in a way known as boge xuan, or pigeon hovering. Sometimes, several citizens were marshaled into the presence of the emperor, and they were granted some food and liquor.”

Chinese Valentine’s Day

In ancient times, the Lantern Festival was not only about enjoying delicious food and appreciating lantern shows. It was also recognized as a celebration of romance, when lovers courted each other. The prominent Chinese poet and essayist, Yu Kwang-chung (1928–2017), called Lantern Festival the “Chinese Valentine’s Day.” On the day of Lantern Festival in 2005, he said, “In the West, Valentine’s Day occurs every February 14. Today is the Chinese Valentine’s Day. Romance is inscribed in our poems. ‘When the moon mounted to the tops of the willows,/ Two lovers kept their tryst after the yellow dusk.’ What a romantic moment!”

The lines Yu quoted are from a famous poem titled “The Lantern Festival” by Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072), a great Song Dynasty poet. In the poem, Ouyang wrote: “Last year at the Lantern Festival/ The flower-market lights were bright as day;/ When the moon mounted to the tops of the willows,/ Two lovers kept their tryst after the yellow dusk./ This year at the Lantern Festival/ The moon and the lights are the same as then;/ Only I see not my lover of yesteryear,/ And tears drench the sleeves of my blue gown” (trans. Robert Kotewell & Norman Smith).

The first half of the poem recalls the sweet night of the Lantern Festival the year before, when lovers met in a quiet corner, away from the bustling night, flocks of people, and glittering colorful lanterns. However, the poem finishes on a more somber note, as the narrator’s lover has gone by the following year’s festival. The view is the same as the past year, but the narrator was left alone in a noisy crowd of people. The enormous, engulfing waves of fun stand in sharp contrast to his sorrow and loneliness. Most believe that Ouyang composed this poem in 1036 to commemorate his second wife.

The renowned Chinese writer Yu Qiuyu also compared the Lantern Festival to the Chinese Valentine’s Day. In 2010, he wrote a passage for the Lantern Festival: “I’ve always believed that it [the Lantern Festival] is just the end of a lunar year, but I didn’t know it had so much connotation. It is a day of carnival, a day of releasing emotions and energy, and a ‘Valentine’s Day.’” Yu also said that the Lantern Festival “is a rebellious festival, and a festival for youth. The Spring Festival emphasizes family reunion, during which young people stay at home to take care of their parents. They go out on the day of the Lantern Festival, seeking a sense of elegance and beauty from the hustle and bustle of the festival.”

Lantern Festival in old Beijing

In his well-known prose “The Spring Festival of Beijing,” the great Chinese writer Lao She (1899–1966) gave a vivid account of the festive atmosphere in old Beijing: “During the Lantern Festival, lanterns and other festoons were hung up everywhere, and the whole street seemed like a wedding, fiery and beautiful. Those famous time-honored shops were decorated with hundreds of lanterns. Some were all made of glass, some were all made of cows’ horns, and some were all made of silk. There were shops decorated with lanterns of various shapes and colors, while some shop owners preferred to paint the stories of Dream of the Red Chamber or Water Margin on all their lanterns. In parks, sky lanterns were released into the night sky like stars. Almost all the people came out to appreciate the moon, lanterns, and fireworks.”

Customs in south China

Although the Lantern Festival is a national festival, different regions celebrate it in diverse ways. Wang Zengqi (1920–1997), a famous Chinese writer, was born in Gaoyou, a small city in Jiangsu Province in south China. In his prose “The Lantern Festival in My Hometown,” written in 1993, Wang depicted a distinctive Lantern Festival in south China.

“The Lantern Festival in my hometown is not so noisy and bustling. There is no lion dance, dragon dance, stilt walking, land-boat dance…all these festivities only occur on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, which is known as yinghui, a day to honor Cheng Huang [the spiritual magistrate and guardian deity of a particular Chinese city]. In many other places in China, the Lantern Festival is a gala day. In my hometown, however, the festival is quiet.”

“There is a custom that may not be available in other places: kan weiping, or watching folding screens. A folding screen usually consists of a wooden frame and a silk panel, about three chi (a Chinese unit of length measuring about 33cm after 1860) high and a half chi wide. The folding screen has to be installed before the festival. A sequence of illustrations of a historical novel is painted on about 30 folding screens, and candles are lit behind these screens—they constitute an illuminating comic…We have watched the folding screens for many years. It is our annual routine, as it seems impossible to think about the Lantern Festival without thinking about watching folding screens.”

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