February 13, 2006

Lantern Festival in Taipei

Thanks for Sharon (TPLC) for sharing with this informative article about Lantern Festival happening in Taipei. We'll go and visit some lantern shows tomorrow, I will post some photos later.
Lantern Festival, also known as Shang Yuan Festival, takes place on the fifteenth day of the first moon. Last in a series of springtime celebrations, this "second New Year" is widely celebrated by families all around Taiwan. On the night of the festival, decorative lanterns depicting birds, beasts, historical figures, and any one of a number of different themes are carried by children or adorn temples. To highlight these glowing works of art, competitions are held .

The Taipei Lantern Festival, held annually at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Plaza and the largest and most famous of these competitions, is attended every year by thousands of lantern-watchers. The Lantern Festival is further enriched by the customary lantern riddle parties that are held on this night. The night sky on Lantern Festival is also illuminated by the Tainan Yanshui Fireworks Display and Taipei Pinghsi Sky Lanterns - known together as "Fireworks in the South, Sky Lanterns in the North," as well as many other regional folk activities.

In addition to displaying and appreciating lanterns, Lantern Festival is also celebrated by eating tang yuan, an important custom symbolizing family unity and indispensable to the day's festivities. The varied festivities and customs practiced on Lantern Festival not only provide celebrants with rich entertainment, like the historical-theme lantern displays and riddles, but are also instructive, by their expression of ancient wisdom. The variety of splendid lantern features different folk art techniques, impressing these arts deep in the hearts and minds of the people.

Shang Yuan is the birthday of the God of Heaven. Beginning in the T'ang dynasty, the fifteenth day of the first, seventh, and tenth lunar months were known as Shang Yuan, Chung Yuan, and Hsia Yuan respectively. Rites are offered to the God of Heaven on Shang Yuan, to the Earth God on Chung Yuan, and to the Water God on Hsia Yuan. Local temples all hold celebratory festivals on these dates to worship each of the three gods. Though decorative lanterns have traditionally been made from bamboo, electric counterparts have become more popular in recent years. Countless different designs are used for the lanterns, but most can be generally divided into iconic lanterns and depictive lanterns. Iconic lanterns are modeled after animals, dragons, flowers, people, machines, and any number of other objects; depictive animate lanterns on the other hand depict scenes from popular stories such as the Legend of the White Snake, The Cowherd and the Weaving Maiden, and The Romance of Three Kingdoms. These stories are all didactic in nature, teaching filial piety and other traditional values in a colorful and entertaining manner.

Famous temples around Taiwan - such as the Lung Shan Temple in Taipei, Cheng Huang Temple in Hsinchu, and Chao Tian Temple in Peikang - have long displayed an array of decorative lanterns during Chinese New Year. Perennial favorites are the lanterns depicting animals of the zodiac and elaborate electric lanterns.

In 1990, the Tourism Bureau of the Ministry of Transportation and Communication held the first Taipei Lantern Festival at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Plaza. Due to the event's overwhelming popularity, the festival has been expanded every year.
Each year, this festival showcases a new theme based on the zodiac animal of the year. The main event of the festival is the Lantern Lighting Ceremony held on the first day of the display with a fusion of color, light, and sound that attracts universal applause from onlookers. It is a show of dazzling color remembered by all. Combining traditional art with modern technology, the Taipei Lantern Festival carries on a centuries-old folk custom, and has become a major activity marking the beginning of the Chinese New Year.

Lantern riddles are, as their name implies, riddles stuck on the surface of lanterns for people to guess while enjoying the Lantern Festival displays. The key to the riddle may be found in a single word, a line taken from a poem, the name of a place or an object. Since guessing the riddles can be as hard as shooting a tiger, these brain-teasers have been nicknamed "lantern tigers." Lantern riddles today cover a wide range of topics and come in a plethora of different forms, and provide stimulating, entertaining, and interesting lantern festival activities. Newspapers, magazines, and department stores all come up with riddles for the public to solve. Together with the lantern riddle parties held at temples on the night of Lantern Festival, these activities add to the air of festivity on this occasion.

Yanshui Fireworks Display
The most spectacular "audio-visual" show of Lantern Festival is without doubt the YanShui Fireworks Display, or " beehive of fireworks". It is told that in 1875, the village of Yanshui in Tainan County, was stricken with a pestilence that lasted for twenty years and nearly wiped out the town's entire population. The few survivors that remained prayed to the Goddess Kuan Yin to come to inspect the ravished land. On the day of the Lantern Festival, the town residents entreated the deity Kuan Kung and the deities of Heaven to come to earth to witness their plight, lining the route with signal fires and firecrackers to help the spirits ward off evil and rid the town of disease. When all was done, the plague was nowhere to be seen, and ever since , the people of Yanshui invite Kuan Kung to inspect the land every year on Lantern Festival, lighting firecrackers to herald his arrival to earth. This custom is continued today in the unique and spectacular Yanshui Fireworks Display.

The festival begins at dusk with the setting off of the fully-adorned spirit palanquin and driver, and continue all the way up to 5:00 or 6:00 AM the following morning. Throughout the whole event all one can see or smell are fireworks. The most impressive of all the fireworks set off on this day is the "cannon wall" which is lit to thank the gods for their blessing. The scale of the cannon walls vary, though most consist of tens of thousands of firecrackers which pound the sky with a deafening roar. Every time the spirit palanquin approaches the cannon wall, the wall custodian pulls open the red cloth and lights the firecrackers, releasing an explosion of light and color that is the climax of the fireworks evening.

During Lantern Festival, beautiful sky lanterns light the still night sky over the village of Pinghsi creating a scene of unusual beauty. Located in a remote mountain area outside of Taipei, Pinghsi developed slowly and was not very accessible. Originally inhabited by indigenous people, the region was later developed by Han settlers who were often the victims of murder and robbery during earlier times. Since access to the region was inconvenient, these pioneers came up with the idea of releasing "sky lanterns" to let others know that they were safe and sound. Through the years this practice evolved into a popular cultural tradition celebrated annually during Lantern Festival. Sky Lanterns are also known as "Kung Ming lanterns," since some say they were invented by Chu Ke-liang (also known as Kung Ming) during the Three Kingdoms period as way of communication during war time. According to another story, the name came from the resemblance of the lanterns to the hat worn by this famous prime minister. Despite the remoteness of the Pinghsi area, the sky lantern festivities draw huge crowds thanks to wide reporting of the event in the media. Not only do the number of lanterns increase with every event, their size continually grows as well. The lanterns are decorated with colorful pictures, the names of their owners, and wishes such as "The higher the lamp flies, the higher your business will soar."

Central to the customs practiced during Lantern Festival is the eating of yuan hsiao ( eaten during the winter solstice ) to symbolize peace and unity.
Each locality its own distinctive way of making yuan hsiao, but all include glutinous rice dumplings filled with bean paste, sesame paste, peanut powder, fish or, meat. Generally speaking, yuan hsiao are rolled out on bamboo frames whereas tang yuan ( eaten during the winter solstice ) are kneaded in the palm of the hand. The final product of both methods is a perfectly round dumpling which can be eaten either in soup or deep fried.

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