This is kind of embarrassing, but we spent the weekend looking for the Lantern Festival in Beijing and I’m not sure that we found it. I had done my homework (we even discuss the festival in a class, Chinese Traditions and Festivals, that I teach at UOC), so I knew that the Lantern Festival (Dengjie 灯节) takes place on the 15th day of the Lunar month (the first full moon of the new year) and it marks the end of the Chinese New Year. Traditionally, families make and eat glutinous rice balls (yuan xiao 元宵), made of sticky rice flour and filled with delicacies such as sugar, rose petals, sesame, sweetened bean paste, and jujube paste, go outside with lanterns (and even release them), and try to guess the answers to riddles written on the lanterns (the tricky part of written Chinese riddles is that one character can have many meanings, which makes finding the answer all the more difficult). Since this is also the last day of New Year, there are lots of fireworks all over the city: it is the last legal day to ignite them and oftentimes street vendors sell them at half-price to get rid of their stock.
Youtube video from a Taipei Lantern Festival in 2007: building up my expectations
So I knew what the lantern festival was all about, now we just needed to experience one. Easier said than done. After spending quite a bit of time looking online for some possible venues for the festival, we realized that this was not going to be an easy task. The papers mentioned a couple of places (and only after looking in a lot of online papers, Chinese and English alike) that would hold the lantern festival over the weekend, with displays of lanterns and maybe even some traditional music performances. We decided that the best venue was Qianmen, the Southern Gate to Beijing’s Old Inner City, just south of Tiananmen square. We went with another family, who are here for reasons similar to ours, that has a son Sophia’s age. Having another family with us really makes getting around the city easier and more enjoyable, since the kids (particularly Sophia and Dylan) really like playing with our friends’ son, and having another set of parents helps us handle our own three kids in a much more sane way (we are usually outnumbered!).
Qianmen used to be the location of the police headquarters during the last part of the Qing dynasty, around the time when various colonial powers (British, French, Japanese, etc.) had important legations in the city. Now it is a very beautiful street that has been described to me by several people as the Chinese / Disney version of old China, although instead of temples and palaces, now you find Zara stores and very elegant KFCs. To our disappointment, we did not find anything connected to the festival: no lamps, no riddles…nothing. We then tried for a second area of the city (Sanlitun), a central expat area of Beijing, where most of the embassies are located, but by the time we got there and had dinner, the kids (and there were four of them!) were getting cranky for one reason or another (“I have to go to the bathroom,” “I can’t walk anymore,” I want to hold mama’s hand,” It’s taking too long,” “Can I have Ice-Cream?”), so we decide to give up and retreat for the day.
On Sunday, with a pollution index in Beijing of 374 we decided to give it another shot. Before we ventured out, I called my friend Xavi, an old high school friend who has been teaching in Beijing for the past 7 years, and who would probably know what would be a good place to see the festival. He didn’t know either. He even asked a Chinese friend who was with him at the time, but the response was also negative (Xavi told me that his friend “can tell you where I could find the closest Hollister store, but that he had no idea of where to see the lantern festival.”) So after some more research we decided to go again to Qianmen (the papers kept asserting that it was the place to see it!). Once we got there, there were not really many lanterns to be seen besides the ones at the entrance (see picture below). What we did see, though was an insane number of people wearing headbands with light up devil’s horns or Minnie Mouse-esque bows. Is this what the lantern festival had become? What happened to the pride of a centuries-old tradition? Do people still celebrate the Lantern Festival in Beijing? Have the lanterns morphed into kitschy headbands?
The main problem, as I see it now, is that I had certain expectations about what a lantern festival should look like, based on what I had read, and some Youtube videos that I had seen, which, I realize now, are from other parts of the country (or out of mainland China altogether). The reality (please some Beijinger correct me here!) is that the festival is celebrated in Beijing in a different way. I guess culture is not a textbook, and people make festivals their own, keeping them alive even if, in some cases, the transformations that a festival goes through makes it difficult to recognize for someone who, like myself, has only known about it from textbooks and wikipedia descriptions. It looks like I should start giving up my expectations and embrace culture as a living, ever-changing phenomena. That way I can avoid the disappointment too!
P.S. When we were waiting for a taxi to take us home, we ended up seeing the only lantern of the day. A family had lit a lamp on a bridge and then released up in the sky. Maybe someone heard us complain and decided to give us what were looking for. On our way home we never saw another lantern.