The Lantern Festival – Spectacular Display at Wenyu River Park!

The final day of Spring Festival, the Lantern Festival (Yuánxiāo jié 元宵节) falls this year on February 24th, the fifteenth day of the celebrations. Although it’s not a public holiday, it is still widely celebrated, especially in southern China and among the diaspora.

This year, we visited two locations in Beijing to see lanterns: Shichahai to see an amazingly long dragon and Wenyu River Park, to see one of the biggest lantern displays there’s ever been in Beijing! Read on to find out more about the origins of Lantern Festival and the lantern displays.

Dragon lantern at Shichahai in Beijing

The origins of the lantern festival are unclear.  One legend is set in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), when Buddhism had just recently arrived in China. On the 15th day of the first lunar month, the monks in Buddhist temples lit many lanterns as they observed Uposatha, a day of cleansing and re-dedication to the practice of Buddhism. Emperor Ming, in an effort to popularize Buddhism, ordered that all households, including the imperial palace, should light lanterns. Another story is that, after a period of great political upheaval, Emperor Wen, one of China’s most benevolent emperors, designated the 15th day of the first lunar month as a day to celebrate peace.

Combined with other tales and traditions, these gradually developed into a folk custom and became incorporated into the Spring Festival celebrations.

Dragon lantern at Phoenix Mountain temple fair in Beijing

On the lantern festival, people traditionally lit lanterns, went to public lantern displays, solved riddles and ate tangyuan. There were also performances from acrobats, dragon and lion dancers and musicians. The festival was quite noisy and wild, as suggested by an ancient name for it: 闹元宵 (nào yuán xiāo) which means wild/exciting lantern festival!

Solving riddles livened up lantern displays with intellectual challenges. Chinese riddles are difficult to translate as they usually depend on puns, historical figures, characters, idioms or places to make sense. But here’s a simple example: These tall, thin brothers go everywhere and do everything together, and always avoid soup. Who are they? (Answer below!)

On this evening, women – who traditionally had to stay at home – were allowed to take part in the festivities with the men. According to legend, this lead to romantic encounters on the evening, so it is sometimes called China’s ‘true Valentine’s Day’ (as opposed to the Qixi Festival on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month).

Fish lantern at Wenyu River Park 

Tangyuan (Tāngyuán 汤圆) are round dumplings made of glutinous rice flour with sweet fillings, traditionally sesame paste. The name sounds similar to the word for ‘reunion’ (tuán yuan 团圆).  Their round shape represents the full moon (since the 15th day falls on the first full moon of the new year); also unity and the coming together of the family at this time of year, as well as hope for togetherness in the new year. 

In some parts of China they are known as yuanxiao, hence the Chinese name of the festival (Yuánxiāo jié 元宵节). Some people still make their own at home, filled with red bean or sesame paste, but they are now widely available in supermarkets with all manner of fillings including kiwi, orange and chocolate!

This year there are lots of lanterns set up around Beijing, especially in communities and at malls. One of the most impressive is at Shichahai, where at Lotus Lane (opposite the north gate of Beihai Park) you can see a huge dragon lantern snaking along the shore and lighting up the whole area at night.

Wenyu River Park Megalights Wonderland (温榆千灯会)

This massive lantern show is currently on at Wenyu River Park in Beijing. It makes a wonderful evening out, and offers the chance to see traditional and modern lanterns in an amazing setting full of brilliant light and colour. Take a look at our video below. 

We visited just before the Lantern Festival, which is probably when this show is going to be at its busiest. But it’s actually on until July and  the lanterns will be updated for upcoming festivals and important dates like Women’s Day. 

You can book tickets without having to enter an ID number on Dianping (search for the Chinese name of the event 温榆千灯会). If you have a Chinese ID you can also use Baidu to book.

The show is very large and we recommend allowing at least 3 hours for a visit. The show is located between gates 20-23 of the park. We went in at gate 22 as it’s the nearest to the subway at Qingheying (Line 17).  If you’re going in February or March wrap up warm as the park is on the river and much colder at night than in the city. There is plenty of street food available from kiosks around the park. We suggest using the park toilets vs the portaloos as they were cleaner.

We used this helpful article from Beijing Kids to help us plan our visit:

Riddle answer: Chopsticks!

How did you celebrate Lantern Festival this year? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing your thoughts and insights! 

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys

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