The Story of the Lantern Festival

February 19, 2019

Every year on the 15th day of the lunar New Year, we celebrate 元宵节 Yuánxiāo jié, or the Lantern Festival.

On this evening when you sit down to a steaming bowl of glutinous rice balls stuffed with sesame paste, you may find yourself wondering, “What do lanterns have to do with any of this?”

Many centuries ago, Emperor Ming of Han was a devout Buddhist who noticed Buddhist monks lighting lanterns on the 15th day of the lunar New Year.

To commemorate the Buddhist tradition, Emperor Ming ordered all people, palaces, and temples to light lanterns as well, and the custom stuck.

Lanterns decorate a tree


There is an abundance stories and folktales associated with the Lantern Festival, and the account of Emperor Ming is one of many. A second popular tale also exists:


As the story goes, one day in the royal palace, a high-ranking official named Dongfang Shuo was wandering through the gardens. Shuo heard crying and hurried through the trees.

There he found a young maid named Yuan Xiao standing on the edge of the well, ready to jump to her death.

Dongfang Shuo saves Yuanxiao

“What is the matter?” Shuo asked.

“I have not seen my parents since I came to work in this palace,” Yuan Xiao sobbed. “If I cannot see them again in this life, it is better to die.”

Shuo was moved by the maid’s loyalty to her family.

“I swear to you,” he promised, “that I will find a way to reunite you with your parents. Step back from the well.” Shuo extended his hand.

Yuan Xiao took Dongfang Shuo’s hand and they returned to the palace together to enact Shuo’s plan.

The next day, Dongfang Shuo set up a fortune-telling booth in town. He was very wise, and many people, including Emperor Wu, came to hear their fortune. The fortunes were all the same: the kingdom will burn on the full moon.

Wishes decorate a fortune-teller's stand

The Emperor was terrified. “How am I to save my kingdom?” he asked Dongfang Shuo.

“A fairy dressed in red will reveal the way,” Shuo answered mysteriously.

At that moment, Yuan Xiao came riding by on a horse. She was clothed in a red dress and carried a scroll.

“Your majesty, I hold a decree from the Jade Emperor. He will burn the kingdom on the first full moon. If you are to survive, you must do two things.

First, fool the Jade Emperor into believing your kingdom is already burning. Second, make an offering to the Fire God. Only then will you be spared.”

Yuanxiao dressed as a fairy

Emperor Wu understood. Perhaps if the Jade Emperor saw the lanterns, he would believe the kingdom was already on fire. He immediately sent out the imperial order.

Yuan Xiao made tángyuán as a tribute to the Fire God, and each family in the kingdom also gathered together to make their own offering of tángyuán.

As the sun set on the 15th, across the kingdom the people lit lanterns and set off fire crackers. They looked to the skies and waited.

Fireworks exploding


The sun rose the next day and the kingdom was safe. Emperor Wu summoned Dongfang Shuo and Yuanxiao.

“You have saved our lives! How can I repay you?” Emperor Wu asked the pair.

Shuo looked at Yuan Xiao and smiled. “I can think of one thing…”

The next day, Yuan Xiao’s parents were welcomed into the palace. In celebration of the kingdom not being burned down, Emperor Wu declared making tángyuán and lighting lanterns a yearly tradition.

Since Yuan Xiao had saved the kingdom, the Emperor named the holiday 元宵节 Yuánxiāojié in her honor.

What a cool legend behind the Lantern Festival! Here are a couple more things you may still be wondering:


Why do we eat 元宵yuánxiāo and 汤圆tángyuán?

yuán means “round” and 元 yuán is pronounced the same way. 汤圆tángyuán also sounds similar to the phrase “团员tuányuán”, meaning “to reunite as a family”. The shape of the sticky balls of yum is symbolic of family unity for the coming year.


Why is it actually called “元宵节Yuánxiāojié”?

The holiday is thusly named because the holiday falls in the first (元yuán) lunar month. 宵xiāo was the ancient word for 夜, both meaning “night”. The importance of this night in the first month is the appearance of the first full moon of the lunar New Year.


How do I wish my neighbors a happy Lantern Festival?

If you’re not sure what to say:

Yuánxiāojié kuàilè!

Happy Lantern Festival!


If you want to make conversation:

Nínjīnnián zěnmeguò yuánxiāo jié?

How are you spending the Lantern Festival this year?


If you are feeling confident in your culinary prowess:

Qǐngnín lái wǒ jiā chī wǒ zìjǐ zuò de yuánxiāo.

Come over to my place and eat my handmade yuánxiāo.