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What is China’s Lantern Festival?

Tomorrow (02/03/2018) marks the fifteenth day of the first month of the traditional Chinese calendar, also known as Lantern Festival (Yuánxiāo jié 元宵节). This is an important day in Chinese culture as it marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Chinese Calander
Stretching back from the Qin (221 – 206 BC) to the Qing (1644 – 1912 AD) dynasties, the traditional Chinese calander is based around astrological observations. This explains why the Chinese New Year, and hence also the Lantern Festival, fall on different days each year. For example, last year (2017) the former fell on Saturday the 28th of January, whereas this year it fell on Friday the 16th of February.

Understanding how the Chinese calendar works is a complicated process. However, thanks to Google (or Baidu, if you are in China) you can now simply look up the dates that festivals fall on in advance. This will save you from assuming the wrong date for festivals that occur differently each year, and thereafter either forgetting to send your Chinese colleagues or associates the appropriate season’s greetings, or wondering why they are slow to respond to your messages at certain times.

Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is arguable the largest celebration in China. According to mine and my foreign friend’s experiences, it always felt more or less like ‘the Chinese Christmas’. Shanghai, like many other Chinese cities, suddenly became eerily quiet (except for the fireworks interlude on Chinese New Year’s Eve) as the non-locals returned to their hometowns in their millions.

A week later, the people return to the cities they usually live and work in, and it is back to business as usual. One point worth noting is that many Chinese holidays usually change the preceding or following work days. For example, if a particular holiday falls on a workday, most people are required to work make up those days on the weekend before. This is something that baffled me and other foreigners when we first heard about it. However, it’s how it works out there, so being aware of it will further help you understand when your Chinese colleagues or associates are available.

Lantern Festival
Lantern festival usually falls approximately a week after everyone returns to work. People don’t usually take this day off work if it falls on a weekday (fortunately, this year it falls on a Friday).

There are several versions of where this festival’s origins come from, including fables and attempts at explaining why this festival would likely appear around this time. There isn’t space or time to recount all of these here. But it is worth noting that (from what I can tell) there doesn’t appear to be a consensus on its origins amongst Chinese Laobaixing.

There is, however, a consensus on how this event is celebrated. Firstly, there is the food: an essential part of all Chinese festivals! For Lantern festival people eat tangyuan (tāngyuán 汤圆), which are small balls of glutinous rice served in soup. It is not uncommon for these to be homemade by some people and handed out to friends, families and colleagues.

And of course, there are the lanterns. You will see these adorning most compounds and shop windows, and people will gather in squares on the evening of the festival to see more elaborate lantern displays.

In Chengdu, where Lan-bridge’s headquarters are based, there is a large Lantern Festival held in the city’s Culture Park, where particularly spectacular and elaborate lanterns are on display for the thousands of visitors to view.

What greetings to send out to your Chinese friends and associates on this day?
For Chinese New Year, there are several well-known seasons greetings: From “Happy New Year”, “Wishing you luck for the year of the Dog” (gǒunián dàjí, 狗年吉祥) (for 2018), “Good fortune according to your wishes” (jíxiáng rúyi,吉祥如意), etc.

For the Lantern Festival, however, there isn’t such a range of greetings, so it is best to go with the simple “Happy Lantern Festival” (Yuánxiāo kuàilè 元宵快乐), which we at Lan-bridge will now wish you!



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