Soon it will be the Lantern Festival (元宵节 yuán xiāo jié), the climax of the Chinese New Year holiday. It is the first full moon night, which is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.
Over 2000 years, the festival has developed many meanings. People usually celebrate it by moon gazing, lighting lanterns, watching the Lion dance, and eating rice balls (汤圆 tāng yuán) during family reunions. But did you know that, besides the lantern fairs and other traditions, back in ancient times, it was the “true” Chinese Valentine’s Day?
In ancient China, women usually weren’t allowed out the house. There was a curfew system to prevent criminal activities such as gambling and stealing. No one was allowed to travel from 7pm to 5am, except for funerals, medical treatment, and marriage. Violators would be flogged at least 20 times with a rattan cane as a punishment.
But on the night of the Lantern Festival, everyone could stroll freely. Through lighting lanterns, playing games, and other activities, women could interact with men. These romantic stories are why some say the Lantern Festival is the true Chinese Valentine’s Day, rather than the Qixi Festival, which celebrates the annual meeting of the cowherd and weaver girl in Chinese mythology.
Tales from the past
Princess Taiping, (太平公主Tàipíng Gōngzhǔ), which means “Princess of Great Peace“, was a princess of the Tang Dynasty. Her first accidental meeting with her future husband Xue Shao was during Lantern Festival. During the night, she snuck out of the palace. The princess fell in love with Xue Shao the moment he took off his mask, while she was strolling around during Lantern festival. As she said, she had never seen any man as beautiful as him.
In the Song Dynasty, the famous poet Ou Yangxiu wrote the poem “Fresh berries” to tell a romantic story of the Lantern Festival:
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.
(translated by Max)
From the same era, Li Song’s painting “View of the Lantern” depicted the event at that time.
In one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels Dream of the Red Chamber, there is a scene of guessing lantern riddles. After being confined in the boudoir with few free activities for a whole year, the women in the Red Chamber could finally go out and enjoy the Lantern Festival. They dressed up meticulously and tried their best to get attention from men.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Enjoy moon gazing, lantern shows and performances while eating a bowl of tāng yuán soon at Lantern Festival!