Lantern Festival: double the romance


 Double Romance  |  Graphic  by Zhu Huiqing




Lantern Festival:

double the romance



By Yuan Quan, Guo Ying, Lu Ye, Liu Xin and Zhou Runjian



Chinese may face more traditional and poetic holiday options on this year’ s Valentine’ s Day, February 14, as it happens to be the Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Discussions are getting heated online about how to split the celebrations between lovers and parents in China, as the Lantern Festival, which marks the last day of the lunar New Year celebration, is conventionally regarded as a chance for family gathering.





But some have dug into the festival’ s origin and found that it was truly a romantic day as ancient Chinese girls grew up at home and hardly had chance to go outside to meet people. But the Lantern Festival was an exception. On that particular day, young women were allowed to go outdoors at night to see the lantern displays, offering them an opportunity to meet young men.

“Many legendary love stories start with an encounter on the Lantern Festival, so it can be viewed as a Chinese version of Valentine’ s Day,” said Wang Laihua, a Chinese traditional culture researcher with the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.





However, the traditional festival is not all about romance. Lion and dragon dances, acrobatic performances and fireworks are also features of this special day.

The Qinhuai River, a branch of the Yangtze River that runs through central Nanjing, east China’s Jiangsu Province, used to be a red-light district famous throughout the nation in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Though shuttling boats with red lanterns and beautiful geishas were already historical things, the tradition of enjoying lanterns and guessing riddles along the river bank has been inherited till now.

Culture fiends can also find something more spectacular in Yu County, an ancient town 220 km west of Beijing. The tradition here for more than 300 years has been to fling ladlefuls of molten iron against the high brick walls. This splash of color is reminiscent of fireworks, although more memorable for those who brave the chilly weather.

The more adventurous couples could try a trek through the Emerald Valley, at the northern foot of Huangshan, east China’s Anhui Province.Dotted with turquoise blue pools, it is the setting for scenes in the Oscar-winning film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

The 6-km-long valley was rather risky before it was officially opened to public. In 1986, a group of 36 young travelers got lost there. They helped each other to safety, and 20 of the 36 later became couples. Two years later, they revisited the valley and signed a letter appealing to the local government to change the valley’ s name to Lovers Valley.







Sweetened rice dumplings                               Chocolates



Celebrations vary from place to place, but eating yuanxiao, or sweetened rice dumplings, is common across the country and has passed down through the generations.

Just as Western influences can be tasted in the modern mooncake, the traditional Chinese delicacy eaten on the Mid-Autumn Festival, chocolate and yuanxiao are one of many new pairings for the Lantern Festival.

Chocolate is widely regarded as a relatively recent introduction to China, but it was first recorded as entering the country back in 1705, when Roman Catholic Pope Clement XI dispatched envoys who presented 150 chocolates to Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty.

However, until the late 1980s when multinational manufacturers entered the market, most of the “chocolate” eaten in China was made with cocoa butter substitutes, creating nothing more than a sweet, brown substance. Helped by slick and widespread marketing campaigns, real chocolate has now become part of the culture and the diet, as has Valentine’ s Day itself.

In contrast, yuanxiao, commonly called tangyuan in south China, have evolved over centuries and are still adapting, with new ingredients, to modern tastes.

Made with rice flour and sweet fillings, they symbolize family gatherings and happiness and are easy to cook: simply put them in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes and eat as a dessert.

According to folklore expert You Guoqing, though most Chinese families still eat yuanxiao on the Lantern Festival, homemade yuanxiao are becoming rarer. Frozen yuanxiao sold in supermarkets are gaining in popularity for their variety of fillings and convenience, as many people have less time to make them.

Yuanxiao with chocolate or rose fillings can also be found. A manager surnamed Li at Huguo Temple Snacks shop said yuanxiao with chocolate or rose fillings comprise almost half of the 150 kilos sold every day. Sales of rose-filled yuanxiao had doubled on last year.

“I think this is a perfect mix,” said a young man buying rose-filled yuanxiao as a gift for his girlfriend’ s family.





The last time when Lantern Festival coincided with Valentine’ s Day was in 1995, when many Chinese were still too conservative to talk about love openly. People did not understand well about Valentine’ s Day at that time and some even translated it into “Lover’ s Day” or “Mistress’ Day” .

But in the past two decades, attitudes have changed. “More Western festivals are becoming popular among young Chinese, and February 14 is a time of roses and chocolates, candlelit dinners and Valentine cards,” said You.

Many young people said on social media that they would marry on Friday, hoping to bask in the good fortune of two festivals. It is estimated that the number of couples getting married on February 14 would be much higher than previous years.

However, many also complain that Valentine’ s Day is more about money rather than romance now in China. The prices of flowers soar, restaurants are packed and online sales grow vigorously.

Owners of flower shops will make a historical big fortune this year. According to “Laojiang” , a flower shop owner in Hangzhou, an ordinary rose will be sold at least 15 yuan (about 2.50 USD), up 30 percent from last year, and he estimates that the price will get higher as the festival approaches.

Some people also believe that the two festivals meet on the same day representing a union of love, especially for film buffs who fancy a quiet evening in with a special person that night.

Chinese cinemas are always popular on Valentine’ s Day, with three romances scheduled to screen this year: “Beijing Love Story” , “Bends” and “Unexpected Love” .

If the lovers were fed up with the crowded ticket box, they could easily find a coffee shop and watch the classic love movies. Precious leisure and comfort would be provided there.

The touching stories on the screen infiltrate into the young people’ s real world. When the movie ended, love would happen.







Mother or lover:

love-birds torn

by concurrent festivals



By Wang Wen, Qiang Lijing, Shang Yiying and Chen Xiaobo



Small round dumplings, flavored with rose petals, have appeared in all of China’s bakeries as people struggle to please both family and lover on Valentine’s Day.

The imported celebration of Valentine’s Day this year coincides with the traditional Lantern Festival, which dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), and marks the end of lunar New Year festivities. The festival is usually celebrated with displays of red lanterns and by eating sweet rice dumplings,”yuanxiao”, at home with the family.

Chinese parents looking forward to the festival hope daughters and sons will stay at home with them on that day, said Yang Jianhua at Zhejiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.

This year, many younger family members have a very different idea, and are scheming to spend Valentine’s Day with their loved ones, just the two of them, Yang said.

And hence across the country, young people juggle with the competing claims of tradition and romance.

“Choosing between the two festivals is like choosing who to save if your mother and lover fall into the water at the same time,” netizen “Xiaoxiao” posted on Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. The platform boast more than 15 million users across China claiming to be tossed on the horns of the dual-festival dilemma, most of them young.

In the booming eastern “City of Heaven”, Hangzhou, downtown registry offices stayed open late as young couples rushed to make marriage vows .

“I’ll celebrate Valentine’s Day with my girlfriend this year in the hope that we will spend future Lantern Festivals together, for the rest of our lives,” Li Shuai, 27, declared. His colleagues, on the other hand, have all chosen to have the traditional, dumplings with their families, option.

“Filial piety always comes first for Chinese people. I’ll stay at home on Friday for the Lantern Festival, then spend a romantic weekend with my boyfriend,” said Chen Qin.

Being a couple requires mutual cooperation and many ended up with quarrelling.

“I broke up with my girlfriend because she felt dumped when I decided to take my mom out instead,” said white-collar worker Cai Zhifeng.

Valentine’s Day often falls during Chinese New Year holidays. Lantern Festival is on the 15th day of the first lunar month, the first full moon of the year, and the end of the most important season for family reunions.

The imported holiday spurs discounts at department stores and helps hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and florists to prosper, but it triggers heated discussion on western and eastern culture clashes just as often.

“I didn’t understand why my ex-girlfriend cared about a foreign festival so much, just like she found it strange that I valued an ancient tradition,” said Cai.

The Lantern Festival coincided with Valentine’s Day last in 1995, when many Chinese were still too conservative to talk about love openly, and Valentine’s Day was a minor curiosity of the calendar. But in the past two decades, it’s more than just attitudes that have changed, and many Western festivals are popular among old and young alike.

Folk experts believe people should relax and enjoy “double romance” this year: Lantern Festival was made for lovers.

Wu Bingan, honorary chairman of the China Folklore Society, said that while most Chinese holidays feature family reunions and honoring one’s ancestors, the Lantern Festival has been an occasion for going outside and participating in public events since ancient times.

“Young women would be chaperoned into the streets during the festival, dancing, singing and possibly meeting their future husbands,” said Wu.

Smart people like Zhou Changwen manage to combine two dates. He will fly home to the northwestern city of Xi’an taking his girlfriend with him.

“We’ll watch the lantern show with my parents. It’ll be the first time she meets my family,” said Zhou.







Lonely festivals pain

young migrants’ city dreams



By Cheng Lu, Qiang Lijing and Jiang Chenrong



While some are fussing that a Chinese and a western festival have collided, millions of migrant workers are on coaches and trains, returning to the cities from their rural hometowns.

The traditional Lantern Festival falls on Feb. 14 this year, or Valentine’s Day. Unlike their urban counterparts with hard choices to make between family and lover, the young migrants are more nonchalant.

“It’s not the right time for rural young people with urban dreams to enjoy family reunions and romantic relationships,” said 24-year-old tea specialist Wang Miao.

Wang has struggled for four years to become a real urbanite in Xi’an, the provincial capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. Now, she runs a well-known coffee and tea house, wearing makeup and high-heeled shoes. She looks no different from any other white collar worker, but the label of “rural migrant” still sticks.

“The high cost of living and frequent moves make it difficult for us to build a stable romantic relationship in the city,” Wang complained.

Whenever she goes home, her parents push her to go on blind dates with men she doesn’t know. Most rural girls of her age have married and even have children, but she refuses.

“I have fully adapted to urban life. Even if I was willing to go home, I have no farming skills and nobody could offer me a job as tea specialist there.”

There is a big divide between the rural and the urban in China, and armies of young people from the countryside are trying to carve out lives for themselves in the cities, said Zhang Yan, a sociologist with the Shaanxi Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.

Statistics from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security show that China had about 269 million migrant workers by 2013.

Formerly, migrant workers dreamt of making a fortune in big cities and then building a house back home. According to Zhang, there is a new generation of migrants, mainly born in 1980s and 1990s, who aspire to being fully integrated into the city, but they still work in low paid manufacturing or service industries, just like their predecessors.

Chen Shuang, 23, is one of them. After travelling for more than 10 hours from her village in central China’s Hubei Province, she arrived at Kunshan in the flourishing eastern province of Jiangsu, where she makes a living in a motherboard factory.

Kunshan is the fourth city — after Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen — where Chen has pursued her urban dream in the past five years. She went home for Spring Festival, but still feels homesick as the Lantern Festival approaches.

Valentine’s Day, widely celebrated by urban people in recent years, is a meaningless occasion for her, without roses, chocolates or lover.

“Unless I can be accepted by the city, I won’t get married,” Chen said. By “accepted”, she means getting a “hukou” (household registration), which is tied to one’s place of residence. The system was set up in 1958 to control the movement of people between urban and rural areas.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the Chinese urban population reached 731 million, accounting for 53.7 percent of the total, in 2013. The figure was only 17.9 percent in 1978.

But many migrants-turned-urban dwellers today are not truly “urbanized”. Without hukou, they have no urban social security entitlement, no access to public housing, and their children have to pay extra fees to attend public schools.

“Our city dream seems unattainable. We are ready, but the city is not,” Chen Shuang said.

A government statement after an urbanization conference in December, promised help for 260 million rural migrants to get the urban status and to become integrated city residents.

Days later, the Communist Party of China set a target of new hukou status for 100 million migrant workers by the end of 2020.

Sociologist Zhang encourages skilled migrants with regular employment to settle in cities, and the country should provide them with equal opportunities, enabling them to move up socially and economically. As for the other migrants, developing their careers in their hometowns requires local governments to attract proper industries and provide social services.

Wang Miao works late at the tea house on the festivals. Though she feels lonely and confused sometimes, she says she will never choose to go back to her hometown, as it would mean giving up everything in the city, after years of effort.







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