The Custom of Eating Yuanxiao during the Lantern Festival


The 15th day of the first lunar month is the Lantern Festival, a traditional festival in China. People eat yuanxiao on this day. Yuanxiao are small balls made of glutinous rice flour with or without filling. Its filling can be bean paste, white sugar, hawthorn, and dried fruit of all kinds. Yuanxiao can be boiled, fried or steamed. It was called fuyuanzi in the past, and later tangtuan or tangyuan, all of which have a similar pronunciation as tuanyuan, meaning reunion. So this food is a symbol of union, harmony and happiness for the family. People also eat it to cherish the memory of loved ones not beside them and express their good wishes for the future.

Like the balls in lion dances and dragon dances, tangyuan is also a symbol of the moon, and eating tangyuan symbolizes worshiping and appreciating the moon. A poet named Zhou Bida once compared yuanxiao to the moon in his poem “Yuanxiao Fuyuanzi”. He wrote, “Stars shed light even behind dark clouds; pearls distinguish themselves even in muddy water.” It is said that in 1913, Yuan Shikai changed the name yuanxiao to tangyuan, because the former sounds like “Yuan perishes” in Chinese; thereafter, tangyuan became a widespread name of the food.

Over the past one thousand years, yuanxiao has become more and more exquisite. In respect to the wrappers, there are polished glutinous rice flour, sorghum flour, millet flour and corn flour wrappers. As for fillings, they are even more diverse, and they can be sweet, salty, vegetarian, meat or fish. The way to make yuanxiao varies between northern and southern China. In North China, rice balls are rolled to the desired size in a flat basket containing dry glutinous rice flour, while the usual method followed in southern provinces is to shape and smooth the balls by rolling each one between your hands. The size of yuanxiao can be as large as a walnut or as small as a soybean. It can be cooked by boiling, stir-frying, frying or steaming it. Be it with or without filling, it is delicious. Now yuanxiao has become a dessert or a snack that one can eat on any day throughout the year.

Source: Confucius Institute Online