One of the traditions during 元宵节 (yuán xiāo jié) is to adorn the streets with all kinds of lanterns. As one of the grandest festival after the Lunar New Year, there are many beautiful stories attached to it, and one of them tells us why lanterns became such a crucial ornament.
About 2000 years ago in the Han Dynasty, the emperor had a very clever minister by the name of Dong Fangshuo. One day, Dong Fangshuo encountered a maiden crying in the Emperor’s garden and asked her what was wrong.
The maiden answered, “My name is Yuan Xiao. I have not been home for a long time, and I miss my parents very much.” In ancient China, once you were recruited to work for the Emperor as a maid, you couldn’t leave the palace until you were let go. Feeling sorry for the maiden, the clever Dong Fangshuo decided to help her.
The next day, Dong Fangsuo disguised himself as a fortune-teller and told the people, “You are going to have bad luck. On the 15th of the first month, the Fire God will set you on fire.” People were all so scared that they asked desperately, “Please save us!”
“Well,” said Dong Fangshuo, “on the 13th of the first month, the Fire God will disguise himself as a girl dressed all in red. You must try to find her. Only she can help you.” Then after returning home, he told one of his maidservants to put on a bright red dress on the 13th, and rode a donkey slowly down the street.
As soon as she was discovered as the “Fire God,” the maidservant calmly took an envelope from her sleeve and said, “This is the decree of the Emperor of Heaven. Hand this letter to your emperor and you will be saved.”
People immediately took the letter to the imperial palace. The emperor was greatly shocked, upon reading the letter, for it read, “You will have bad luck! On the 15th of the first month, the Fire God will set you on fire.”
When he came to his senses, he immediately summoned Dong Fangshuo and asked him for help. “I have a good idea,” said Dong Fangsuo, “please ask every household to make a big red lantern and hang it out on the 15th of the first month. Then order all the people to come out to enjoy the lanterns. Your majesty should then go among the people. That way, the Fire God will never find you.”
[caption id="attachment_2039" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Photo courtesy of Creative Commons and Flickr/Herr_Bert[/caption]
The emperor followed his advice. On the 15th of the first month, the entire city was adorned with beautiful lanterns. All the people including those working in the imperial palace came out to enjoy them. The court maiden Yuan Xiao was able to take this opportunity to go home and have a reunion with her parents.
That evening, the Fire God did not come for the emperor, which made him very happy. Thereafter, he ordered that each 15th of the first lunar month, the entire nation should celebrate with lanterns.
[caption id="attachment_2040" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Photo courtesy of Creative Commons and Flickr/zhov[/caption]
And it still does.