Thursday, February 17, 2011

Yuanxiao Festival

Poster: Happy Yuanxiao Festival

The 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month is the Yuanxiao Festival (元宵節 Yuanxiao Jie), more popularly known as the Lantern Festival (燈節 Dengjie). This day is the first full moon of the lunar new year and marks the official end of the Chinese new year celebrations which lasts for 15 days. On this day, lanterns are hung up in beautiful displays and various forms of entertainment take place amidst a festive atmosphere. As twilight approaches, lanterns are lit up to emit warm glowing lights for an evening of happy festivities. In ancient times and even today, different kinds of lanterns of spectacular large scale designs are displayed or paraded in the evening for revelers to enjoy.
Lanterns to celebrate the Yuanxiao Festival
Yuanxiao Festival celebration in Nanjing, China

Giant lanterns are released up into the sky at the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival in Taiwan

It is also customary at this time for families to eat tangyuan (湯圓), also called yuanxiao (元宵), which are round dumpling balls made from glutinous rice flour with sweet or savory filling. Their round shape symbolizes togetherness and completeness.

Tangyuan/yuanxiao dumplings filled with sweetened black sesame paste

There are many different legends surrounding the Lantern Festival, but a popular one connects the festival to a Taoist deity, the Great Emperor Heaven Official (天官大帝 Tianguan Dadi), because the day is also considered to be his birthday. His full title is The Great Emperor Heaven Official of Purple Subtlety of the Upper Primordial & Primary Grade Who Confers Blessings (上元一品賜福天官紫微大帝 Shangyuan Yipin Cifu Tianguan Ziwei Dadi), and that’s why the Yuanxiao Festival is also known as the Shangyuan (Upper Primordial) Festival (上元節 Shangyuan Jie). This deity is part of a Taoist trinity called the Three Great Emperor Officials (三官大帝 Sanguan Dadi) which includes the Heaven Official (天官 Tianguan), Earth Official (地官 Diguan) (also mentioned here), and Water Official (水官 Shuiguan) (also mentioned here). It is believed that on this day, the Great Emperor Heaven Official descends to the earthly realm to inspect the world of mortals and to confer his blessings on them. Many traditional Chinese homes even have a tablet, plaque, or red paper printed with his abbreviated title Heaven Official Who Confers Blessings (天官賜福 Tianguan Cifu) as an effigy for veneration. Generally, incense and fruits are offered at least twice a month on the first and fifteenth days of each lunar month.

The Great Emperor Heaven Official, more popularly known as
the Heaven Official Who Confers Blessings

Another interesting fact about the Yuanxiao Festival is that it was also known as a Chinese Valentine’s day in the past because in ancient times, matchmakers tried to help young people find a romantic partner during this time, and young boys and girls played games along the river so that they had a chance to meet through social interaction.

Happy Yuanxiao Festival to all, and may the Great Emperor Heaven Official confer his blessings on everybody!

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

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