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3 Interesting Legends about the Lantern Festival

With the end of the Lunar New Year festivities comes a holiday highly anticipated by the Chinese — the Lantern Festival!

The Lantern Festival, also known as the Yuan Xiao Festival (元宵节), is celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month, marking the first moon of the new lunar year. It’s considered to be a time of peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness and is popularly regarded to be the perfect opportunity for lovers, friends, and families to spend time with each other. This is because of the abundance of fun traditions which include lighting lanterns, solving lantern riddles, eating tangyuan, and watching dragon dances. 

But what exactly started this wondrous, family-oriented holiday? Here are three interesting legends of the Lantern Festival for you to check out:


Emperor Ming and the Buddhist Monks

The most popular origin story of the Lantern Festival is one that dates back to more than 2,000 years ago, set during a time when Buddhist influences were spreading around China. 

According to legend, Emperor Ming of the Han dynasty once noticed Buddhist monks lighting lanterns in temples on the 15th day of the first lunar month. Because he was an advocate of Buddhism, the emperor ordered all households of the kingdom to follow suit. Since then, lantern-lighting became a popular custom throughout the entire country. 


The Jade Emperor and the Celestial Swan

According to another legend, the Lantern Festival was born was due to a story of revenge. Long ago, the Jade Emperor who had ruled the heavens once witnessed a celestial swan being shot down by an ignorant mortal hunter. In his righteous anger, the Jade Emperor then vowed to punish humanity by burning the world on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.

Fortunately, other heavenly deities who heard of the Jade Emperor’s plan felt sympathy towards the mortals and rushed to warn them. As a result, families all over the land hung red lanterns and set off fireworks to trick the emperor into believing that their homes were already burning. Because of this, humanity was spared. 


Source: bobistraveling of Flickr


The Scholar and the Maid

In Mandarin Chinese, the Lantern Festival is more popularly known as the Yuan Xiao Festival. This name refers to the glutinous rice dessert yuanxiao, which is also otherwise known as tangyuan

In this story, the Lantern Festival was inspired by Yuan Xiao, a homesick palace maid who could not fulfill her filial duties as a daughter because she was not allowed to visit her parents during the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Distraught, Yuan Xiao planned to commit suicide by jumping into a well. 

Hearing this, the scholar Dongfang Shuo organized a scheme and informed the emperor of an impending danger: the Fire God was planning to burn down the city during the sixteenth day of the first lunar calendar! Recognizing the trouble, the emperor immediately asked for Dongfang Shuo’s opinions on the matter. 

Dongfang Shuo then provided the following advice: Firstly, Yuan Xiao, the palace maid, should create sweet tangyuan dumplings as offerings to the Fire God since those were his favorite. Every household should also do the same. Secondly, lanterns and fireworks should be lit across the city to convince the Fire God that the city was already burning, thereby preventing him from destroying it himself.  

Following this advice, the city became a loud and festive mess. In the end, this allowed Yuan Xiao to sneak off and happily visit her parents. 


Want to learn more about Chinese festivals? Check our articles on the Dragon Boat Festival and the Hungry Ghost Festival.

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