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Lantern Festival

Mandarin Words and Phrases

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Lantern Festival

Photo by Rintojiang

The 15th day after the Lunar New year is Lantern Festival in Chinese culture. It falls on the first full moon of the lunar calendar.

Lantern Festival is known in Mandarin Chinese as yuán xiāo jié 元宵節 (trad) 元宵节 (simp). Many cities have fabulous lantern displays, and children carry ornate lanterns through the streets.

Origins of Lantern Festival

There are several stories about the origin of Lantern Festival. One of them tells about Yuan Xiao, a maiden living in the emperor’s palace. Yuan Xiao had a luxurious life, but she missed her family and wanted to see them during the New Year celebrations. This was not allowed.

So Yuan Xiao devised a clever plan to sneak out of the palace. She told the emperor that the God of Fire had visited her and told her of his plans to burn down the entire city. She offered this advice to the emperor – “Make the city look like it is already on fire, then the God of Fire will go away.”

So the emperor ordered lanterns to be lit throughout the city and firecrackers to be set off. During the confusion, Yuan Xiao was able to get away unnoticed and had a joyous reunion with her family.

The Significance of Lantern Festival

The New Year represents a fresh start – the end of winter and the beginning of a new season. It is fitting, therefore, to end the New Year festivities with a celebration of light to mark the return of the light and warmth of the sun.

Traditionally, lanterns have been made of bamboo and paper. They can take on almost any shape, and range in size from tiny replicas to larger than life.

Animals are a common theme for lanterns, with the year’s current animal being a favorite. Lanterns can also be constructed in geometrical shapes, or made to represent the gods and goddesses.

Lantern Festival Activities

The traditional food of Lantern Festival is tāng yuán, also known as yuán xiāo. These are dumplings made from glutinous rice flour and filled with sweet or salty stuffing such as sesame paste, red bean paste or minced pork.

Some people release hot-air lanterns made of paper and fueled with kerosene. In the town of Pingshi in northern Taiwan, thousands of these sky lanterns are released to light up the night sky. The lanterns convey messages to the gods to bestow luck on the people below.

If you are brave, you can celebrate Lantern Festival in Yanshui, Taiwan, where they shoot fireworks directly into the crowd. Participants must be well padded with jackets, raincoats, and helmets, but despite this protection, many people get injured every year. This rather insane tradition is to appease Guangdong, the god of war and commerce. If you suffer a direct hit, you are sure of a prosperous year ahead.

Another Taiwan tradition is the Bombing of the God Handan. Handan is the god of wealth, and has a great fear of the cold. Anyone who wishes to be rich can help Handan keep warm by throwing firecrackers at him. The city of Taitung in Taiwan is a major center for this event.

Lantern Riddles

A fun activity for all ages is to solve riddles attached to lanterns. The person who can answer gets a small prize.

Lantern riddles can be very challenging. Some are similar to English riddles, but others are based on the construction of Chinese characters, or refer to traditional poetry. Here are some examples:

Traditional Characters / Simplified Characters

  1. 一隻狗四張嘴。 / 一只狗四张嘴。
  2. 一口吃掉牛尾巴 。
  3. 說他是條牛 , 無法拉車跑 , 說他力氣小 , 卻能背屋跑。 / 说他是条牛 , 无法拉车跑 , 说他力气小 , 却能背屋跑。
  4. 五個兄弟 , 生在一起 , 有骨有肉 , 長短不齊。 / 五个兄弟 , 生在一起 , 有骨有肉 , 长短不齐。

Answers and Explanations


  1. (Yī zhī gǒu sì zhāng zuǐ. One dog, four mouths.) This is a description of the character 器 (qì).

  2. (Yī kǒu chī diào niú wěiba. One mouth eats the bull’s tail.) A description of the character 告 (gào).
  3. 蝸牛
    (Shuō tā shì tiáo niú, wúfǎ lā chē pǎo, shuō tā lìqi xiǎo, què néng bèi wū pǎo guā niú. It is said he is an ox, but unable to pull a cart. It is said he has little strength, but he carries his house on his back.) The answer is snail (guā niú), the second character of which means ox.

  4. (Wǔ gè xiōngdì, shēng zài yìqǐ, yǒu gǔ yǒu ròu, chángduǎn bù qí. Five brothers, born together, of flesh and bone, but all different heights.) The answer is hand (shǒu).

Lantern Festival Dates

Lantern Festival falls on these dates:

February 6, 2012
February 24, 2013
February 13, 2014
March 5, 2015

Vocabulary for Lantern Festival

Here are some common words and phrases associated with Lantern Festival. The Pinyin column contains links to audio files.

English Pinyin Traditional Characters Simplified Characters
lantern festival yuán xiāo jié 元宵節 元宵节
riddle solving cāi dēng mí 猜燈謎 猜灯谜
eat tang yuan chī tāng yuán 吃湯元 吃汤元
lanterns dēng lóng 燈籠 灯笼
carry lanterns tí dēng lóng 提燈籠 提灯笼
admire the lanterns shǎng huā dēng 賞花燈 赏花灯
sky lanterns fàng tiān dēng 放天燈 放天灯
Yanshui fireworks yán shuǐ fēng pào 鹽水蜂炮 盐水蜂炮
bombing Handan zhà hán dān yé 炸寒單爺 炸寒单爷
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