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Lantern Festival

February  2006

In China, the dark days of winter are brightened by the decorative lights from the numerous festivals occurring during this bleak season.  The lights first emerge in the beginning of December, with Christmas tree lights.  The illumination grows in January with the lights for the Spring Festival, decorating streets and parks.  It culminates in February with the addition of red lanterns displayed in windows for the Lantern Festival.  These steadfast lights are supplemented with frequent fireworks exploding in the night sky.  The informal pyrotechnics start on the western New Year’s Eve, build momentum during the Little New Year, climax during the Chinese Lunar New Year, and end with a grand finale during the Lantern Festival.
Zac and I were actually a bit disappointed that we were in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year, because fireworks are restricted there.  So while all was quiet in Kowloon on Lunar New Year’s Eve, most parts of mainland China resembled a war zone.  However, we got a taste of what we had missed soon after we returned to Dalian.  On the Sunday morning after the Spring Festival, the businesses re-opened for the first time in the New Year.  To ensure prosperity in the coming year, every business must set off voluminous amounts of firecrackers.  Of course, they do this right on the side walk in front of their shop, the very sidewalk I and other pedestrians use to walk to work.  One of my friends, who works downtown where the really rich businesses are, said that the fireworks there even shattered some windows.  All around the city, the explosions echoed off the buildings, the air was filled with smoke, and there were smoldering piles of red paper all along the sidewalk.  It was great.
A week later, the festive season was brought to a close with the Lantern Festival.  This holiday occurs during the first full moon of the New Year—about 15 days after the Lunar New Year (February 12th this year).  Since we were gone for the Spring Festival, our Chinese friends decided to share the Lantern Festival with us.  So on Sunday night, they brought two red lanterns and affixed them to the lights in our kitchen.  They also brought bags of sweet dumplings to boil, the traditional food for the Lantern Festival.  Sweet dumplings are made from sticky rice flour and filled with various pastes.  I managed to convince them that Zac and I really didn’t like bean paste, so the sweet dumplings were filled with black sesame paste instead.  I made a big pot of chicken noodle soup to accompany the dumplings, and we had a lovely little supper.
As soon as we finished eating, we rushed off to grab taxis to Xinghai Square to watch the formal fireworks display there.  However, since fireworks are not the least bit restricted in Dalian, there were fireworks going off all over the city.  On our way, I asked about the meaning of the lantern festival.  Apparently, its origins are lost somewhere in China’s 5,000 year history.  But they did tell me it had something to do with the full round moon representing togetherness, and so families should get together on that day.  The sweet dumplings are also round like the moon.  The red lanterns and fireworks have something to do with scaring off bad luck or an evil monster.
We eventually abandoned our taxis, which were mired in traffic, and walked the rest of the way to Xinghai Square.  We got there a few minutes after the fireworks had started, but they lasted for about 25 minutes, so there was still plenty to see.  We also had the unique experience of walking on grass.  In most cities throughout China, walking on the few precious patches of grass is strictly forbidden (I have a whole new appreciation for backyards since living here).  But it was winter, and there were too many people to fit on the sidewalks, so everyone was standing on the grass.  In fact, I was impressed at the large crowd which had gathered.  It seemed to me that after 3 nights of fireworks displays here during the spring Festival, not to mention all the informal fireworks going off every day and night all over the city, that they might be tired of fireworks by now.  Not so.


After the fireworks ended, we gave up any hope of competing favorably with the hundreds of other people trying to catch busses and taxis home, so we decided to walk up the hill behind our old apartment and wait until the crowds thinned a bit.  Only two of our Chinese friends were up for the hike, but it was still fun to show some Dalian locals a new place in their own city.  Neither Felicia nor Emma knew about the path up the hill or the stunning view from the top.


Looking down over the city that night, I began to understand the power of the Lantern Festival.  From above, the double red lanterns hanging in the windows looked like so many pairs of fiery eyes protecting the city.  And when the pyrotechnics, exploding here and there throughout the neighborhoods, were viewed in panorama, the fiery geysers seemed forbidding.  If I were, say, a malevolent dragon flying around looking for a place to wreak havoc, I’d probably be a bit intimidated by Dalian’s display of firepower.  I’d fly elsewhere.

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