Decorating Lanterns at the Lantern Festival

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Among the Three Origin Days ( 三元日Sanyuan Ri ), the Upper Origin and Middle Origin days are important festivals. The religious and folk activities of the Upper Origin Festival are mainly held at night, and so it is also called the First Eve ( 元夕Yuanxi ) or the First Night ( 元宵Yuanxiao ). On Upper Origin Day, the birthday of the Heavenly Official Who Gives Blessings, folk people celebrate with decorative lanterns and First Eve plays, and hold festival activities of amusements and begging for blessings. Daoist temples set up Offering Rituals to celebrate the Heavenly Official's Birthday; and people go to the temples to burn incense and beg for blessings. Lanterns are lit in the evening; cultural recreation and acrobatics are performed. Balls of glutinous rice are eaten everywhere; this is the custom of "eating on the First Eve".

The origin of First Eve customs is related to the activities of the Magic and Immortality tradition. Ouyang Xiu's Affinity of Arts and Letters ( 藝文類聚Yiwen Leiju ) says in vol. 4, "The Han dynasty offered sacrifice to the Supreme Oneness on the eve of the full moon. The custom of playing and enjoying lanterns is its remainder." The Supreme Oneness, originally a deity of the Chu area, was worshipped in the Han Court by the Wu Emperor in his pursuit of Immortality. Singapore Daoism also worships the Supreme Oneness. Therefore, the custom of decorating lanterns on the First Eve is directly related to the Magic and Immortality tradition and Daoist activities. The 15th of the 1st month of the lunar calendar was set as the birthday of the Heavenly Official Who Gives Blessings; thus the lanterns were connected with celebrating this divine birthday. The auspicious atmosphere of the Heavenly Official giving blessings adds greatly to the happiness of the First Eve.

Buddhism tried to exert its influence on the First Eve after its spread into China. The Record of Initial Studies ( 初學記Chuxue Ji ) of the Xuan Emperor era cites the Nirvana Sutra ( 涅磐經Niepan Jing ), stating that "Buddha's relics were collected on a golden bed after cremation. Deities, scattering flowers and playing music, burned lanterns at every step within a radius of 12 miles around the city." The Ming emperor of Han, knowing this from his envoy for Buddhist teachings, ordered the people to decorate lanterns on the evening of the 15th. In fact, this is very unreliable. Deities scattering flowers and playing music, as monks' exaggerated praise for Buddha, were not historic events. As for the Ming Emperor sending an envoy for Buddhist teachings, we can't ascertain whether it's true or not. The Forty-Two Chapter Scriptures, which was brought back from India by the envoy according to the legend, was not an original Indian scripture, but just a compilation of abstracts of scriptures. Buddhism, at the time of its introduction into China, was regarded as mere low-class magic. It's impossible for it to have moved the emperor to order people to change their customs. Customs in ancient China were thought to be related to the education and transformation of people, and thus with the rise and fall of the country. So they were no trifling matter. Furthermore, the Buddha passed away in the 12th, not the 1st month. Nevertheless, Buddhist efforts to inflitrate the First Eve Festival somewhat contributed to its prosperity by attracting the interest of Buddhist followers.

People have long followed the custom of decorating lanterns on the evening of the 15th of the 1st month. By the Northern Wei dynasty, the Daoist Upper Origin Festival, and consequently the custom of decorating lanterns, had already been fixed. In the Sui and Tang dynasties, the custom was magnificent, with lanterns of ever-higher quality. Cultural recreation became more and more varied and colorful, until modern times.

The contents of the lanterns embodied Daoist features and Buddhist participation till the Song Dynasty. The lantern pictures often display Immortal Stories and occasionally the Buddha and Buddhisatvas. The Record of Dreamlike Prosperity of the Eastern Capital ( 東京夢華錄Dongjing Menghua Lu ) (of the Northern Song) by Meng Yuanlao and Vol. 1 of the Record of the Golden Millet Dream ( 夢粱錄Meng Liang Lu ) (of the Southern Song) by Wu Zimu mentioned Lanterns in the capitals of their day. The First Eve festival on the 15th of the 1st month was the birthday of the Heavenly Official of the Upper Origin. In front of the royal court in the capital Bian City, a mountain-like framework was set up opposite to Xuande Mansion. It was spread with color silk with pictures of Immortal stories. In the left and right, the Boddhisatvas Manjusri and Samantabadra of five-color silk rode a lion and a white elephant. Out of each of their hands flowed water, which was lifted to the top of the framework by pulleys and stored in wood box. Then the water was let to flow down in time as a waterfall.

People knot dragons with grass, cover them with black cloth and put thousands of hidden lanterns in the dragons. Viewed far away, they are like two dragons flying. ? These kinds of lanterns obviously had both Daoist and Buddhist features.

Decorating lanterns was also a great flourishing of folk entertainment. As early as the Song dynasty, all kinds of entertainment filled this night of lanterns and music everywhere. "To mention dancers alone, there are dozens of troupes, such as the Pure Voices, the Cloud Holders, the Sword Players, the Bao Elders, the Savage Girls, Immortal Liu, the Three Teachings Players, the Banquet Players, the Wedding Players, the Fighter Players, the Ladies, the Clothes Washers' Songs, the Various Royal Courts, the Bamboo Horses, the Village Music, the Deities and Ghosts, and the Ten Fasting Lads. Moreover, there are 24 puppet troupes, such as the Family Players, the Land Dragon Boats, the Lantern Kickers, the Bao Elders, the Camels and Elephants, the Official Street, and Su's Street. Colourfully dressed with flowers and pearl hats, some waist-thin puppets are like living women. In some noble houses, personal lad orchestras play all kinds of instruments beautifully with loud pure sound. People play happily in the streets all night long." We are not clear about the contents of some of these recreations. In general, they involve singing, dancing, acrobatics and plays. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, fireworks became popular. Gu Yu said in Vol. 1 of Qing Jia Lu, on the First Night festival, "the Earth Spirit temples in Suzhou celebrate with dozens of fireworks in the backyards to please the deities." From these records we know that ' Yuanxiao' originally meant to memorialize the offering to the Supreme Oneness in the court, and became a celebration of the Heavenly Official's birthday and entertained people in the name of pleasing the gods. The tradition is preserved till today. Every First Night has become a great meeting of lanterns, an exhibition of folk recreations, and a fine evening of all the people's happiness.

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