Bringing in the New Year

The Lantern Festival of China!

A current map of China and surrounding countires



The Chinese highly value the role of the family in their lives. The strength of the family lies in its ability to unite at all times. The Lantern Festival, the closing celebration of Chinese New Year elevates the importance of family. Lanterns are hung to guide the ancestors back to their place. The traditional food signifies unity and wholeness. Dragon dances, music and theatrical performances take place in hopes of ushering in a favorable New Year. The coming together of family and ancestors for this celebration strengthens communitas and reminds the people of the importance of family in their lives.


People eat yuanxiao, sweet rice dumplings at the Festival  

People eat yuanxiao, sweet rice dumplings at the celebration

courtesy of

An ornate Chinese lantern typically hanging in the street at the festival

courtesy of


The Lantern Festival is a joyous event celebrated all throughout China. It is the final celebration which closes out the Chinese New Year. The Lunar New Year is the most important Chinese Festival. (Pei Ki 1997:3) It is a time for the people to celebrate the passage of the old year into history and welcome new seasons with a hope for the future. The Lantern Festival reinforces a core value of China: a unified family. The Lantern Festival is a time to unite family- nuclear, extended and deceased ancestors- to bring peace and prosperity to the new year. Communitas, the fundamental creative aspects of a culture, is expressed and strengthened in the Lantern Festival’s dynamic symbolism, underlying meanings and bringing the Chinese people in celebration. The rituals of the festival embody the importance in taking care of the family and ancestors in order to strengthen the family unit.


Context of China

China is a large eastern Asian country bordering countries such as India, Russia and Vietnam. Somewhat smaller than the United States, china is the fourth largest country in the world. Because of its expansiveness, China has a diverse climate ranging from tropic in the south to sub arctic in the north. Most of China’s terrain is mountainous with desert regions in the west. (CIA World Fact Book 2000)

The rule of China has been ruled by many different dynasties. Important to the Lantern Festival, the Han dynasty reigned from 206 B.C to 220 A.D (Bodde 1936:122) Most recently the Qing dynast ruled from 1677 until 1911 when the Republic of china was formed in 1912. Now a communist country, The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. (CIA World Fact Book 2000) Although China is officially an atheist country, the people of China practice primarily Taoism and Buddhism. Approximately 3 percent are Muslim and less than 1 percent is Christian. Under strict communist control the Chinese economy is termed a “socialist market economy.” Traditionally, the Chinese economy is agriculturally based and continues to be so with an increasing industrialized movement. (CIA World Fact Book 2000)


Origins of The Lantern Festival

The Chinese Lantern Festival is a celebration which closes out the Chinese New Year season. The Chinese word for festival is chieh chi meaning the time of air. Thus, Chinese New Year means breath of new air. (Tan 2001:3). The closing festival, the Lantern Festival is called Yuanxiao in Chinese. Yuan means “first” which xiao signifies “night.” The Lantern Festival is the first night to see a full moon in the new year. (Wei 2003)

There are many different beliefs about how the Lantern Festival originated. Each of the legends has to do with each of China popular religions. One legend, associated with Taoism, reports that the god responsible for good fortune, Tian-guan, has a birthday which falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. His followers prepared festivities to entertain the god and pray for prosperity. (Wei 2003) The most accepted origin of the Lantern dates back 2000 years ago to the Han Dynasty when Buddhism first stated in China. Emperor Mingdi had a dream of a gold god which ran off into the west. The next day Mingdi sent a scholar to India to return with Buddhist scriptures. He built a temple for Buddha to reside as reciprocity for the scriptures. The people believed that Buddha posses powers to rid them of darkness so Mingdi ordered the people to hang lanterns in honor of Buddha. (China Today 1998)



The Lantern Festival is a spirited, noisy joyous celebration which closes out the new year celebration. The main focus of the celebration is the hanging of the lanterns. Lanterns historically were made from silk, gauze, glass and colored paper hung outside by bamboo shoots at crossroads and in alleys. (Aijmer 2003:104) Today collections of large impressive lanterns are hung in city parks, shops and in the streets. The lanterns can be in many shapes such as globes, horses, flowers, dragons or they can be painted with intricate scenes from old and new Chinese legends. One exciting tradition has riddles inscribed on the lanterns. The Chinese people walk throughout the streets at nightfall admiring the decorated lanterns and trying to solve the riddles. These riddles may be about a Chinese character, an event in history or about a famous person. (Gunde 2002:97) Figure 4 shows an example of an intricate lantern exemplary of one hung at a Lantern Festival.

At dusk the celebration begins. Relatives gather together traveling about the city to look and compare the lanterns. There are fireworks, singing, drums, gongs and beating of panpiles. Children dress up in costumes with fierce masks. Some people participate in theatrical performances where the cast impersonate their deceased ancestors. (Aijmer 2003:96) One main lantern in the festival is the dragon lantern processions. The thirty foot dragon is built of bamboo rods and cloth. It has red tassels, a beard, golden eyes and ornate decorations. The dragon is carried by several men who hold a stick to support one area of the dragon. The men dance and move together to make the dragon look like it is dancing. (Aijmer 2003:98) Another important aspect of the festival is the food. Yuanxiao are gelatinous rice flour filled with sweets served in soup. These have become so popular around the time of the festival that manufacturers begin making and selling them months in advance. (Gunde 2002:199) The festive events last until dawn



Lanterns such as the one pictured above adorne the streets in China during the Lantern Festival.  Friends and family walk from street to street admiring the different colors, shapes and sizes.




Prognosis for The Lantern Festival

The Chinese New Year is the most important festival for the Chinese. It represents a renewal of spirit and promotes solidarity. The Lantern Festival is increasing in popularity. Globalization and popularity of the event in Western culture aids to increase the magnitude of the celebration (Gunde 2002:199). The production of Yuanxiao begins earlier each year. This delicious treat is shipped all over the world to those celebrating in different countries (Gunde 2002: 199). Each year, new traditions are started and more outlandish lanterns are designed. Though the celebration continues to be observed, globalization causes progress to occur and the ethnic traditions are beginning to diminish. Many Chinese now cannot tell how the festivals originate and region specific traditions are overpowered by mainstream festivities (Pei Ki: 1997 4). As the Festival grows and evolves, it will continue to maintain the spirit of the people.



China’s Lantern Festival is a vital part of Chinese life. As the last festival in the New Year season, its extravagant music and dancing, exquisite decorative lanterns, and unique food provide excitement for the upcoming year. The festival and its rituals reinforce the value of family life. Each activity is used to provide good luck for the year. This is primarily done through pleasing and directing the ancestors, who are with the family the entire New Year Season. Care for the ancestors unites the family and reminds them that a unified family will bring peace and prosperity for the new year. Each tradition allows the people to experience communitas together as they sing, dance, eat, and celebrate together.


Internet References Cited

  • China Information Center
    Traditional Chinese Festivals. Lantern Festival. Electronic document,, accessed September 19.

    The China Information Center is a large site created by the country featuring articles about many aspects of Chinese life including festivals and holidays.

  • Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.
    2004 Celebration of the Lantern Festical. Electronic document, Accessed December 1.

    The Chinese Culture Center website hopes to educate people about the art, history and culture of the Chinese in the United States.

  • CIA World Fact book
    2000 China Facts and Figures. Worldwide Media Relations. Electronic document,, accessed September 19.

    The CIA World Fact Book website is a comprehesive inventory including demographics and facts concerning numerous countries around the world.

  • Wei, An
    2003 Chinese New Year History and Customs. Global Volunteers. Electronic document, Accessed October 18.

    Global Volunteers is a organization used to partner people willing to serve with information about international countries and cultures.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    Aijmer, Goran.
    2003  New Year Celebrations in Central china in Late Imperial Times.   Hong Kong The Chinese University Press.

    Bredon, Juliet and Igor Mithrophanow
    1982 The Moon Year. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press. Chinese University Press.

    Bodde, Derk
    1935 Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking. Shanghai: North-China Daily News.

    China Today
    1998 Lantern Festival. China Today, 47(2):18.

    Eberhard, Wolfram.
    1952 Chinese Festivals. New York: Henry Schuman, Inc.

    Gunde, Richard
    2002 Culture and Customs of Asia. Westport: Greenwood Press.

    Ki, Goh Pei
    1997 Origins of Chinese Festivals. Singapore: Asiapac Books.

    Tan, Betty O.S.
    2001 The Contextualization of the Chinese New Year Festival. Asia Journal of Theology 15(1):115-133.


Contact Jim Aimers | ©2004 Miami University