The history of the Chinese Lantern Festival PDF Print E-mail


Lantern23The length and activities of the Chinese Lantern Festival celebration have varied during the last 2,000 years.  In the Han Dynasties (202BC-220AD), the original festival lasted only a day, and people hung lanterns just to show their respect to the Buddha.


Later, for example, in the seventh century, more activities could be observed during the festival.  Evidence has been recorded in history books: in 610, Emperor Yangdi (569-618) of the Sui Dynasty ordered folk artists to perform singing, dancing and acrobatics at the suburb of Luoyang, the de facto capital, to treat foreign envoys who came to have an audience with him.


In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the festival was celebrated for three days.  It was such a prosperous time in Chinese history that lantern fairs became flourishing throughout the country.  Huge lantern-wheels, -trees and -poles, rather than regular lanterns, had been produced.  Emperors even followed the Han system to lift the curfew in the capital during the celebration, so that people could enjoy the lanterns day and night.  Literates composed famous poems to describe all those happy scenes.


This popular festival celebration had been extended to five days in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).  Handicraft techniques had been greatly improved: colourful glass and jade were employed to make lanterns; decorative Bodhisattva statues were designed with movable arms and water-spraying fingers.  Riddles had been attached to lanterns, adding much interest and flavour to this festival, as guessing riddles required intelligence and imagination.  Dances and acrobatic performance were even more thriving.  During the festival, women wore so many ornaments that they always lost some on the crowded streets.  Some people would therefore 'sweep the street' after the celebration, to collect all those lost articles for themselves!


The largest Chinese Lantern Festival festivities were held in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), as the celebration would continue for ten days.  Emperor Chengzu (1360-1424) had the downtown capital, nowadays Beijing, set aside as a centre for lantern display and sales.  It cost much more to rent houses nearby before the arrival of the festival, as people hoped to have the best place to make a good deal, and enjoy the beautiful lanterns as well.  This place naturally got a new name as Dengshikou – literally the lantern fair – that remains in use today.


In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the celebration had been reduced to five days, and Manchu rulers did not organise lantern fairs in the court any more.  However, Manchurians brought the technique of making ice lanterns to the Central Plains, and ice lanterns became another character of this festival.  Non-governmental lantern fairs were still on large scale during this period; more activities, such as dragon dance and lion dance, were involved.


Today, lantern display on this festival is still a big event throughout mainland China and other places such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.