Ancient paintings unveil Lantern Festival customs in history

By REN GUANHONG / 02-18-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: “Viewing Lanterns” dated to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) preserved in the Taipei Palace Museum

The Lantern Festival, also known as Shangyuan Festival, falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. It marks the first full moon of the lunar new year and concludes the New Year celebrations in China. The traditions of the Lantern Festival can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). It is hard to decipher the true origins of the Lantern Festival, but one thing is certain: with the intent of bringing good fortune to all, this festival was deeply rooted in the lives of ancient people and kept evolving as the civilization developed. In addition to lantern displays, the biggest attraction of the festival, there are many other interesting traditions and customs, such as guessing lantern riddles and eating yuanxiao, the most popular food on that day. The Lantern Festival is also an important theme in Chinese painting. Many ancient paintings open a window for us to view various aspects of the festivities.

‘Lanterns of Shangyuan Festival’
The 266-centimeter-long painting “Lanterns of Shangyuan Festival” displays the Lantern Festival celebrations in the city of Nanjing [in present-day Jiangsu Province] during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The first emperor of the Ming Dynasty made Nanjing the national capital in 1368. Nanjing was a significant metropolis that was economically and culturally prosperous during the Ming Dynasty, even after the Yongle Emperor relocated the national capital to Beijing in 1421. Studies show that “Lanterns of Shangyuan Festival” depicts how people celebrated the Lantern Festival around Sanshan Street in the north of the Qinhuai River in Nanjing during the middle and late Ming era. The area around Sanshan Street was a commercial center in Nanjing at that time. Many bookstores were located in that region, attracting constant streams of literati. 
Perhaps “Lanterns of Shangyuan Festival” was painted by a folk artist. At that time, it was common for wealthy businessmen and art patrons to collect scrolls that captured the daily lives of people customized by folk painters. Folk painters’ artistic creations were inspired by the daily lives of common people, so this painting has value as a historical record. In the center of this painting is a turquoise mountain-like object set up in the street, surrounded by many onlookers. It is the famous giant Aoshan lantern. In addition to the lanterns decorated with popular motifs such as lotus flowers, chrysanthemums, toads, and crabs, the painting also depicts lanterns decorated with a dragon or phoenix, as well as elephants, horses, rabbits, squirrels, lions, cranes, and other images. Some lanterns are also painted with flowers and birds or landscapes.
There are over 1,000 people depicted in “Lanterns of Shangyuan Festival.” This painting not only presents the lantern show, but also captures the entertaining activities of people on that day. While enjoying the lantern show, some walk into stores to appreciate calligraphy and other artworks, or bargain with vendors at a porcelain booth. A stallholder plays a sanxian [a three-stringed traditional Chinese lute] in order to sell musical instruments. Many stores put their goods on the street for sale, and the second floor of stores are also full of people, overlooking the lively street from the window. There are also sales of various furniture, which provide us with valuable data for understanding the furniture of the Ming Dynasty. 
As previously mentioned, Sanshan Street was dotted with bookstores at that time. Books packed in blue boxes are piled high on the ground, and customers squat beside them to make their selections. The middle and late Ming Dynasty featured a thriving vernacular literature. The details of the different facets of life in the Ming era are so faithfully portrayed in various literary works that they can be read almost as a documentary social history of that age.
In the past, people in Nanjing had a long tradition of appreciating flowers, keeping birds and fish as pets, and holding cricket fights. The scroll depicts plants such as plums, orchids, and daffodils, as well as stalls selling exotic stones. In addition, deer, peacocks, cranes, and other rare animals are sold in cages. These all epitomize the life of Nanjing people at that time. It is worth mentioning that in front of a stall selling antiques, there are two old men wearing glasses: one is selecting antiques, while the other is wiping his lenses. Most of the glasses people wore at that time were made of crystal and shells of the hawksbill sea turtle.
‘Viewing Lanterns’
It is said that “Viewing Lanterns” was painted by Li Song, a court painter in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279). The painting depicts noble ladies enjoying lanterns and playing music during the Lantern Festival.
In the center of the painting are four elegantly dressed ladies, with the three on the left playing musical instruments. The standing lady is playing the tanban [sandalwood clapper], and the two sitting are playing the xiao [a Chinese vertical flute] and pipa [a Chinese stringed instrument]. It is worth mentioning that in this painting, the pipa, which is mostly played upright today, is held in a horizontal position. Holding a pipa in the horizontal position or near-horizontal was quite an ancient way of playing. Today, this way of playing pipa can only be found in Quanzhou Nanyin [the oldest traditional music style extant in China]. The lady on the right is teasing a child. There are two children behind her, each holding a lantern, including a bunny-shaped lantern. There is a rotating lantern, known as zouma deng, on the square table next to them. The revolving figures on the lantern are propelled by the heated air from the lit candle. It’s said that the elaborate zouma deng first appeared in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). 
The most gorgeous lanterns in the painting are the three behind the four ladies. These three huge lanterns hang under a shed, decorated with ribbons. In front of the four ladies, another lady drags a toy in the shape of a baby elephant slowly forward. There is also a doll on the elephant. In Chinese, the term qixiang (riding an elephant) and jixiang (auspicious) are similar in pronunciation. So riding an elephant is a traditional auspicious symbol in China.
‘Viewing Lanterns in the First Lunar Month’
“Viewing Lanterns in the First Lunar Month” is the first painting of “Life Portraits of the Yongzheng Emperor Throughout the Twelve Months,” a set of twelve scrolls painted by anonymous court painter(s) of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). Set in the Yuanmingyuan (the Garden of Perfection and Light), the twelve scrolls depict how the Yongzheng Emperor (1678–1735) enjoyed himself in the monthly activities in seasonal sequence. “Viewing Lanterns in the First Lunar Month” vividly records how people celebrated the Lantern Festival in the imperial court during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor.
The painting is divided into two parts by a lake. The most prominent landscape of the lower part is a tiandeng [sky lantern], which is actually a very high-hanging lantern. The tradition of hanging tiandeng could be found both inside and outside the imperial palace, but the ones in the palace were far more gorgeous. Court painters also carefully depicted various court lanterns hanging under the corridor eaves, heightening the joyous atmosphere of the scene.
The upper part of the painting captures the festive activities of common people. The scene portraying people crowding upon a bridge stems from the custom of zou baibing [lit. walking to ward off 100 diseases]. It was a custom of the Lantern Festival in ancient times, especially popular in the Ming and Qing dynasties. On the day of the Lantern Festival, women gathered together, crossing bridges or going to the suburbs, in order to keep disasters and diseases away.
Festivals endow time with cultural significance, making an ordinary day on the calendar into an extraordinary occasion. Today, the Lantern Festival provides the public with an opportunity to experience those old traditions. The Chinese people are connected together by traditions and cultures, and pass them on from generation to generation.