The Chinese Lantern Festival described in rich prose. Feel, hear, smell taste and see the festival in all its magic. Ed, the ending intentionally trails off — wrapping the story back to its beginning. Document contains sparce italics for effect. Also, I did my best to place it in the correct categories.
Once Upon a Time in China: The Lantern Festival
Once upon a time in China the deity Jade Emperor in Heaven sought to destroy a village by fire because its people had killed his favored goose. A sympathetic fairy warned the townsfolk. They hung lighted lanterns throughout the village, which convinced the Jade Emperor that vengeance had been paid.
Thus began a tradition that survives more than 2000 years later. Or, So one legend goes.
Like fine tea, the Chinese Lantern Festival is steeped in rich culture and robust history. Its roots predate the modern Gregorian calendar; by most accounts beginning during the Western Han Dynasty, 206 B.C. to A.D. 25. Over many centuries the festival’s true origins and traditions became painted with vibrant folklore.
In another account, Emperor Wu of Han, who ruled China from 141 to 87 B.C, dreamt his palace burned down. Wu’s subjects convinced the emperor that his dream was a warning that the gods would destroy his palace because he kept female saves. Thousands of women were freed; each carrying a glowing lantern. The gods saw the flames and believed their deed was done. The emperor, fooled by the ruse, declared a festival to honor his victory.
Another legend claims Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Han Dynasty, who reigned in the first century A.D., dreamt of a mysterious golden man who ascended in the sky and disappeared to the West. Believing the golden specter was Buddha, Mingdi sent his scholars west to India. They returned with Buddhist scriptures. Mingdi built a temple and began the tradition of lighting lanterns to honor Buddha.
Regardless its origins, the Chinese Lantern Festival endured; and today is celebrated around the world. The event marks the end of an annual series of celebrations that usher in the Chinese New Year. It takes place on the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar.
Family unity, new beginnings and the end of old grudges form the thematic foundations of the festival. These values are expressed through honored traditions and symbolic activities. People clean out their homes and businesses. They don new clothing. Families gather together.
But, foremost is the lantern. The community metamorphoses into a sea of fluid brilliance as lanterns of all shapes and sizes adorn the doorways, street lamps and gates of the city. Many people carry red paper lanterns on wooden sticks. Elaborate lanterns roll down the sidewalks or float in the air. Sizes range from hand-held miniatures to gigantic floats.
Traditional lanterns are crafted of bamboo, silk, oiled paper or glass and wood. Modern lanterns are made of any number of materials — even ice — and lit with electric devices.
The shapes often depict iconic animals of the Chinese Zodiac and lore — dragons, snakes, rats, monkeys. Other shapes depict scenes from cultural tales and events; such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Weaving Maiden.
Poetic riddles dangled from lanterns on thin strings entice and entertain the passersby. Wash it and it isn’t clean. Don’t wash it and then it’s clean. Correctly guess “water” and you might win bragging rights and perhaps a small reward from the author.
The Lantern Festival is set to the music of children’s laughter, merchants bartering with shrewd customers, the clack-clack of stilt-walkers and the low, collective chorus of the crowd. Streets serve as stage to a parade of floats and Golden Lion dancers; all led by a Golden Dragon that can be 100 feet long. The happy din is accompanied by gongs, taiko drums and suona horns; street dancers and fireworks.
Tangyuan: Chinese Lantern Festival
Tangyuan, also called yuanxiao, is the traditional food that completes the sensory celebration of the Lantern Festival. Tangyuan are dumplings cooked and served in soup made of sticky rice flour stuffed with savory or sweet fillings like rose petals, sesame, walnut meat, dried fruit, bean paste, peanuts, sugar, jujube paste, meat or vegetables..
Tangyuan’s name and round shape represent wholeness and unity. Giving and eating the dish is like a sacrament to the spirit of the Chinese Lantern Festival.
In February 2008 communities from Wud to Canada to New Zealand will light lanterns and share tangyuan; dance in the streets; and clear out negativity. It is the Year of the Rat —the first sign in the Chinese Zodiac — a symbol of courage, prosperity and new beginnings.
Chinese folklore brought this wonderful celebration to the world. Two thousand years from now, who knows what legend was born today? Surely, it will begin, Once upon a time in China…
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