Wrap up Chinese New Year with sweet yuanxiao
The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year is a special occasion, a festival within a festival. According to Lao She (老舍), this is the climax of the Chinese New Year. It is the brightest and the most beautiful festival.
In 2023, this brightest and most beautiful Yuanxiao Festival (元宵节) falls on Feb 5.
In 1951, Lao She published a beautiful article about the Chinese New Year in Beijing,《北京的春节》, which I love to read. According to this article, Yuanxiao Festival lasted for five days, from the thirteenth of the first month (in lunar calendar) to the seventeenth. As Lao She said, that was a time when the bright moon shrined upon us, and also all kinds of fascinating and beautiful lanterns lit up the city!
Just a couple of lines, Lao She gives us a glittering world filled with dazzling lanterns, which were made with glass, ox horns, or gauze, and were painted with wonderful stories from A Dream of Red Mansions or The Water Margin. These lanterns were made by the famous shops and were really effective advertisements for them. Everyone came out to the crowded streets to see the lanterns, the shops, and the fireworks.
That was marvellous indeed.
Besides Lao She, there have been many others writing about Yuanxiao Festival. Xin Qiji (辛弃疾) was one of them. He was a Song Dynasty general and poet. One of his widely known poems describes a stunning night of Yuanxiao. Watch this particular video of mine on YouTube and learn the first sentence of this poem.
I really appreciate these wonderful images that Lao She and Xin Qiji created. It’s partly because these are really good writings, and partly because they remind me of my own experiences.
When I was a small child, the city I lived in would organise lantern shows during the Yuanxiao Festival. Beautiful lanterns would be up for several days.
I remember that I followed my family to see these beautiful lanterns. That was a fantastic experience. The streets were crowded, and a huge variety of lanterns were so bright and beautiful. I was in awe. If it happened that a light snow was falling on the lanterns on that day, people would say it was an auspicious sign, 正月十五雪打灯. At that time, it was right to translate Yuanxiao Festival to Chinese Lantern Festival.
However, as time goes by, I hardly ever see any decent lantern shows anymore. Lanterns have been reduced to a kind of simple big round red lanterns. Those big red lanterns have become the standardised symbol of what lanterns look like. Whenever I came across some articles written about “Chinese Lantern Festival”, I found that authors always use those big red lanterns to illustrate. Lantern Festival with only one kind of lantern is just sad.
Fortunately, lanterns are not the only way to celebrate Yuanxiao Festival. The lack of beautiful varieties of lanterns is compensated by a huge variety of sweet yuanxiao (元宵), which is a kind of sweet round dumplings designated for the occasion. Many people also call them tangyuan (汤圆).
Decades ago, when there were tons of different lanterns around, I always had one kind of yuanxiao to eat, a kind of snowy yuanxiao with a pouch of sugar inside. Nowadays, when there is only one kind of lanterns everywhere, I have seen and eaten a huge varieties of yuanxiao, sesame flavoured, black sesame flavoured, peanut flavoured, chocolate flavoured, crystal yuanxiao, and so on.
Critically speaking, yuanxiao is nothing but flour, sugar and other rich ingredients that health experts are so vehemently against. However, this is not a time to count the calories. It’s the time for us to wrap up the Chinese New Year with some delicious yuanxiao!