Chinese Holidays, Culture
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Now You Know: What is the Chinese Lantern Festival?

Chinese Cultural Symbols

What images immediately come to mind when you hear the word, “China”? Perhaps you immediately think of chopsticks, the flag of the PRC, temples, and the Great Wall. If you imagined Bonsai trees – good guess, but wrong Asian country (that’s Japan). If you thought of fortune cookies, that’s also misinformed – fortune cookies were invented in America.

Jingli Street lanterns 2

Jingli Street in Chengdu, China (January 2020)

What images immediately come to mind when you hear the word, “China”? Perhaps you immediately think of chopsticks, the flag of the PRC, temples, and the Great Wall. If you imagined Bonsai trees – good guess, but wrong Asian country (that’s Japan). If you thought of fortune cookies, that’s also misinformed – fortune cookies were invented in America.

You probably also thought of red lanterns, an unmistakable symbol of Chinese culture.  As someone who’s traveled to the east, west, north, and south of China, I guarantee you’ll find red lanterns in every Chinese city.

Red lanterns are especially visible in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year and until the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.  The dates of Chinese New Year and the Lantern Festival change every year dependent on the lunar calendar.  In 2020, the Lantern Festival falls on February 8th.

Learning about Chinese symbols, such as the red lantern, is an important first step towards understanding Chinese culture.  Think about it as if you were explaining American culture to a newcomer: you’d start by introducing the flag, the statue of liberty, “American” foods, Pride Parades, football, baseball, and trucks.  It’s not that these are satisfactory representations of American thought and culture, but they provide a foothold to gain further knowledge.  Likewise, understanding Chinese symbols provides a foothold for gaining deeper understanding and appreciation of Chinese thought and culture.

Perhaps you’re interested in doing business in China or simply interested in building friendships with Chinese people in your home country. In either case, you benefit from learning about Chinese culture.  If you ever travel to China, you’ll see that Chinese people are generally very interested in Western culture. If you can reciprocate their curiosity and learn about Chinese culture, you’ll create opportunities for meaningful interactions and finding common ground – the basis for good relationships.

In this post I’m explaining China’s Lantern Festival, three cultural insights, and two best practices to help you become a sophisticated world citizen.

What is the Lantern Festival?

China hotel red lanterns

Lantern Decorations

The Lantern Festival (Yuan Xiao Jie, 元宵節) marks the end of Chinese New Year.  It is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar.  In China, children make red lanterns and stay up late, people hang colorful lanterns and eat special foods such as the yuanxiao (a warm, filled, sweet riceball desert, 元宵). There are competing accounts of the origins of the festival: some attribute the origins to Buddhism, Daoism, and Emperor’s decree. What is most important to remember today is the celebration of relationships, socializing, and new year hope for happiness and prosperity.

Why are lanterns and the Lantern Festival important?

The 2000-year-old tradition of the Lantern Festival is a relevant part of modern Chinese cultural identity, even though the origins are obscure. For non-Chinese, the benefit of knowing about the Lantern Festival is that it highlights important values for Chinese people. Even if you don’t completely understand the reasons behind the festival, you can gain three cultural insights and valuable tips for creating connections.

3 Cultural Insights

Ritual: The ritual lantern celebration is a part of Chinese identity, as much as Christmas is to Westerners.  Because the Lantern Festival origins are obscure, the ritual itself has become of primary importance.  Similarly, Christmas has little to do with religion and instead is a ritual of family, friends, and festivities. Tip: Train for empathy by recognizing that the joy you feel at Christmastime is the same joy that Chinese have for Chinese New Years and the Lantern Festival.


Tasty Tangyuan

Food: Christmas cookies are to Christmas what yuanxiao (a warm, sweet sesame paste-filled riceball dessert, 元宵) is to the Lantern Festival.  Ever tried to diet during Christmas?  It’s awful to miss out on the food.  Likewise, no one wants to miss out on yuanxiao or tangyuan (another type of riceball dessert, 汤圆) during the Lantern Festival.  Tip: The love of food unites all peoples – asking people about their food and being willing to try it goes a long way to building relationships. Refusing to try another person’s favorite food is a surefire way to create hostility.

Relationships: The Lantern Festival celebration is an opportunity for renewing relationships.  China is a relationship-based culture, meaning that decision-making in both business and family matters requires steady, strong relationships. Compare this to other cultures in which contracts and explicit agreements come prior to relationships. Tip: If you haven’t sent a Chinese New Years greeting to your Chinese business partners or friends yet, remember that the Lantern Festival is the final day of New Year festivities. Sending a greeting is a reminder to them that the relationship is important to you and will earn you trust and respect. In business this leads to smoother, mutually profitable negotiations.

2 Bonus Insights and Best Practices

There are two very significant features of red lanterns: the red color and round shape.  If you feel clumsy in cross-cultural interactions with Chinese people, make use of the following best practices:

  1. Red is considered lucky in China, so wrapping a gift in red is always appropriate. Even if you know very little about your acquaintance’s culture, a gift wrapped in red is a foolproof way to show your open-mindedness.
  2. The round shape of the lantern and of yuanxiao is symbolic of continuity. Round shapes and circles are akin to the infinity sign in the West. Don’t break a circle and don’t neglect communication.

Even if you knew nothing about Chinese culture, by now you understand the significance of the Lantern Festival, have gained a few cultural insights and learned some tips to help you appear more sophisticated in your interactions with Chinese people.  Cultural exchanges and empathetic communication become increasingly important to all of us as cultures become more integrated in the 21st century.

Author’s Request

China is experiencing a corona-virus epidemic and over three-hundred people have died.  Heart-breakingly, this is occurring during their special time of year.  If you wish donate towards supplies and medical care, please visit Give2Asia. Thank you! 

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