The Festival of Lanterns takes place at the end of the Chinese New Year Celebration, on the fifteenth day of the first moon. Lanterns have been part of Chinese life for centuries so it's not surprising to see a festival of lanterns. People usually hang lanterns in the gardens, outside the houses, and on the boats. These lanterns are signposts to guide guests and spirits of ancestors to the Lunar celebration.
After a sumptuous fifteen-day feast, these lanterns light the way for the spirits back to the world beyond. Silk, paper and plastic lanterns vary in shape and size and are usually multi-colored. Some are in the shapes of butterflies, birds, flowers, and boats. Other are shaped like dragon, fruit and animal symbols of that year. The most popular type of lantern is the "horse-racing" one, in which figures or animals rotate around the vertical axis of the lantern.The special food for the Lantern Festival is Yuen Sin or Tong Yuen. These are round dumplings made with sticky rice flour.
They can be filled and served as a sweet snack or made plain and cooked in a soup with vegetables, meat and dried shrimp. The round shape of the dumpling is a symbol of wholeness, completeness and unity.
Where all theese start?
The tale of Yuan Hsiao
Long ago, in the house of the great Emperor Wu, there lived a beautiful young servant girl named Yuan Hsiao (Full Moon). Yuan Hsiao had been well named: The light of her namesake would reflect off her face at night, making the other servants feel as if the moon has left its place in the sky to take up residence in the kitchens of the Son of Heaven.
It was not only the imperial servants who were attracted to the light of Yuan Hsiao. The mandarins and even the Son of Heaven himself knew of her, and her famous tang yuan dumplings were vaunted throughout the empire although few had been tasted outside the imperial residence. One among the household was attracted to Yuan Hsiao like a moth to flame” Tung Fang Shu, the honorable first adviser to the great Lord Emperor Wu. In his capacity as first advisor, Tung often took it upon himself to personally oversee weighty imperial matters within Yuan Hsiao’s general vicinity.
It was on one of these urgent imperial errands this time, to the kitchen where Yuan Hsiao, most conveniently, was cooking the at Advisor Tung noticed a shadow cast over her usually bright face.
“What troubles you, little one?” he asked while taking careful note of a cage of ducks that he had decided to personally inventory.
Yuan Hsiao only lowered her eyes in way of response.
“You may speak, little one. Perhaps I can be of service.’
Yuan Hsiao, although just a servant, was first a young woman; and in so being, she was not blind to the approaches taken by infatuated men.
“I would not want to waste the valuable time of the esteemed and wise first adviser to the Son of Heaven with trivial matters,” she said sweetly, her eyes still demurely lowered.
“My time could nev? would not be wasted,” Tung replied, perhaps a bit too quickly for decorum.
“It is only that” she began hesitantly. “It is only that I miss my family. I have been away for so long that even if they were to see me, I fear they never would recognize me. Soon I will be forgotten.”
“It is an honor to be in the service of the Son of Heaven, little one. Your home sickness soon will pass.”
“Yes, wise one.”
Yuan Hsiao bowed deeply and returned to her work.
“I see that you are making your famous dumplings,” Advisor Tung said while looking at the heaping platter of tang yuan.
“Yes,” Yuan Hsiao said, her face brightening at the compliment. “Would your esteemed presence care for some?”
“Thank you, little one.”
“It is my pleasure, wise one.”
With that, Adviser Tung took a bowl of dumplings and returned to the counting of the imperial ducks. That night, in his rooms, Tung thought about the momentary brightness that had lit Yuan Hsiao’s troubled face; and as he watched the moonlight fall on his uneaten plate of dumplings, he fell into a fitful sleep and dreamed of the moon.
He woke thinking of Yuan Hsiao. He tried to banish thoughts of her from his mind, only to have them rise again like the moon in his dreams. It went on in the same way for days and, especially, nights when he was haunted by what once had been just ordinary moonlight. After many anxious days of trying to forget Yuan Hsiao’s problem and many futile nights trying to avoid her namesake, Adviser Tung concocted a plan. He managed to arrange a truly essential errand this time, a careful personal inventory of the stock of fish stomachs in the imperial kitchen where Yuan Hsiao was working.
“You will see your family soon, little one; that I promise,” he told her. “Say, nothing of this.”
He left quickly.
At first, Yuan Hsiao was afraid to be happy. She feared that she had misunderstood the muttered message. Soon, however, her natural good cheer took over, and the imperial kitchens once again were blessed with the radiance of her smile. Tung was too busy to notice the change. In typical imperial adviser fashion, he has only planned to plan a plan at the first available opportunity, and he now found himself in a worse state than before. Especially at night when the moonlight haunted him.
It was only after a dream in which he saw Yuan Hsiao cooking dumplings over a bright fire that his plan finally took shape.
On the next day, a haggard and weary Adviser Tung announced to Emperor Wu that the capital city of Changan soon would burn to the ground.
“On the fifteenth night of the first full moon, the Jade Emperor, the emperor of heaven, will watch as his envoy, Kuan Yu, the god of fire, burns Changan until only ashes remain.”
“How can this tragedy be stopped?” the Son of Heaven asked, greatly concerned.
“There is a chance, Magnificent One, that if we were to pay a suitable tribute to the god of fire, this catastrophe can be avoided.”
“You throw open the chambers of the imperial concubines and the vaults!”
“That will not be required, Son of Heaven.”
“Continue, Adviser Tung.”
“Your Eminence is aware of the demand for dumplings made by the servant girl Yuan Hsiao?”
“Yes, Adviser Tung,” the emperor said, growing impatient.
“It is said that the desire for Yuan Hsiao’s dumplings extends to the god of fire himself.”
“Said by whom?”
“The servants of Kuan Yu are known to exchange gossip, in the manner of servants every where, with those of the imperial house hold, omnipotent one.”
“The god of fire will not burn the city if he is paid tribute with Yuan Hsiao’s dumplings.”
“The Jade Emperor will miss his entertainment,” Emperor Wu stated.
“We can fool the Jade Emperor into thinking that the city is burning by having the people carry burning lanterns through the city streets,” Tung advised.
“How will Kuan Yu know this servant girl?”
“We will have her lead the procession carrying a lantern bearing her name in letters large enough for the god of fire to see.”
And so it went. The Son of Heaven heeded Tung’s advice, and Yuan Hsiao’s waiting relatives were able to identify her by the lantern she carried. She visited with them long enough to cure her home sickness, and, to this day, tang yuan dumplings bear the name “yuan hsiao” in remembrance of the girl with a face like pale moonlight.