Lantern Festivals in China

by Alexis Rohlin
Decorative paper lanterns are hung outdoors during the Lantern Festival.

Decorative paper lanterns are hung outdoors during the Lantern Festival.

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The Lantern Festival is a celebration of lights that takes place during the New Year festival in China. The Lantern Festival in China is held on the last day of the 15-day New Year festival or the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese lunar calendar. The Lantern Festival in 2011 was held on February 17. The 2012 Lantern Festival will be held on February 6.


The Lantern Festival takes place in February or March of the Gregorian calendar. It has been celebrated since the Western Han Dynasty which ruled over China from 206 B.C. to A.D. 25. There are several legends behind the beginning of the festival. One legend tells of an emperor who learned that Buddhist monks would light lanterns to worship Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month. He ordered lanterns lit in the imperial palace and temples to show respect to Buddha in a Buddhist rite. Over time, the rite turned into a great festival that spread all over China.

Lantern Riddles

Guessing lantern riddles is a popular children's game that is played during the Lantern Festival. People write riddles on paper and tape them to lanterns that they hang in the streets near their homes. If someone solves the riddle, they get a small gift from the person who wrote it.


The day of the Festival is a lively one, as the streets are filled with visitors. Stages are erected and drummers sound out the lively beat for performers to parade through the streets and dance the dragon lantern dance, also known as the dancing lion, while firecrackers go off around them. Other dances such as the boat and Yangge dance are performed onstage for the onlookers. After sunset, the night sky is lit up by colorful lanterns of different shapes and sizes. Once the full moon rises into the sky, firework displays are set off to celebrate the first full moon of the new year.

Lantern Festival Food

Rice dumpling balls called yuanxiao or tangyuan are eaten during the Lantern festival. The word tangyuan is pronounced like the Chinese word tuanyan, which means reunion, and many people like to eat them to promote happiness and harmony in their families. The dumpling balls are made with rice flour and seasoned with sweet flavors like sesame seeds, rose petals, sweet red bean paste, jujube paste, walnut meat or dried fruits. Other rice balls are filled with savory or sour fillings like pickled cabbage, minced pork or chrysanthemum leaves. The rice balls can be steamed, boiled, or fried.

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