Lanterns hang for the Lantern Festival in Pengfang Village, Changting County, East China's Fujian Province. (Photo: China News Service/Zhang Bin)
The last day of the Chinese New Year celebration – the Lantern Festival marked on the 15th day of the first lunar month – has earned worldwide fame in recent years.
However, aside from the lanterns illuminating Chinese streets and online debates over the fillings of tangyuan (glutinous rice dumplings), it is rarely known, even to many Chinese people, that the Lantern Festival is the real Chinese equivalent to Valentine's Day.
Compared to the Qixi Festival on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, which is more widely recognized by young couples and commercial brands, the Lantern Festival has a relatively low profile. But it is undeniable that in Chinese history, it is indeed a day for love.
An ancient carnival for all
The history of the festival could be traced back to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.), and the celebrations were gradually enriched, expanded and settled in succeeding dynasties. But from the very beginning, lanterns have been an indispensable part of the day.
Long before the electric lights were invented, the streets in ancient Chinese cities were illuminated by various colorful lanterns.
Despite the fact that most Chinese dynasties had curfews during the night, all the people were allowed to stay out on the days around the Lantern Festival. The Chinese women, who had to stay indoors for most of their lives, were permitted to admire the lanterns and the full moon on the day as well.
Therefore, it was almost the only time for young men and women to meet with each other and fall in love, according to experts.
Dressed in their most beautiful clothes and putting on their most shining hairpins, the ancient Chinese, noblemen and ordinary people included, would swarm the streets, where dancers and musicians, acrobats and vendors would gather as fireworks were lit and lanterns displayed.
There were also riddles written on the lanterns, with many people competing to solve them. Most of the riddles were written in the form of poems, so were therefore mostly enjoyed by educated residents. Many have been handed over generations.
Love inscribed in poems
The other evidence of the Lantern Festival being Chinese Valentine's Day is recorded in Chinese literature. In the thousands of ancient poems passed on from the Tang and Song dynasties, many depicted ardent love for their partners.
Not only was love engraved in ancient poems, but also sceneries and the boisterous carnivals of the Lantern Festival, when the nights were as bright as the daytime with hundreds of lanterns burning.
The festive atmosphere, the performances, and the moonlight jointly created the best time for a date.
Today, the connotation of love in the festival has been almost lost, as young couples could date whenever they want and women are no longer confined indoors. But the lantern shows remain the focus of the festival.
Many cities across China hold their own lantern shows during the day, and many are indeed worthy of a visit.
This year in Xi'an city, the provincial capital of Shaanxi and the ancient capital of 13 Chinese dynasties, several lantern shows with dazzling designs have amazed people across the country.
In the Datang Culture and Art Leisure Area, a commercial area constructed in Tang Dynasty style, a light show took place along the 1,500-meter main street of the plaza into the night sky, while in Tang Paradise, a tourist attraction, a lantern show was launched to welcome visitors during Spring Festival celebrations.
Even the ancient walls of the city were decorated with lanterns featuring Chinese cultural elements. Many said it was pretty much like walking in an ancient Chinese poem or an ancient painting scroll.
For those in love, as Valentine's Day in the west and the Qixi Festival have perhaps become too familiar to arouse romantic senses, why not try a date in the ancient way. With lanterns as the set and the moon in the sky, the night could be turned into a stage for the best possible romance.