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A night of lanterns, dumplings, riddles and togetherness

WANG Xiaojie is enthralled by the brilliant lanterns at Yuyuan Garden. The varied shapes and striking colors mesmerize the 28-year-old advertising consultant. The only problem is stepping on toes or being crushed by crowds.

As the annual lantern show is underway in the classical Chinese garden, visitors are pouring into the site of the Jiuqu Qiao, or Bridge of Nine Zigzags, and 400-year-old architecture.

The warmth and spirit of the Chinese Lunar New Year are everywhere.

It's supposed to be light, bright, crowded and happy.

The lantern show runs through February 12. The night of Lantern Festival itself is on Monday, February 9, in this Year of the Ox.

The Lantern Festival itself marks the official end of Lunar New Year celebrations. It is held on the 15th day of the first lunar month, the night of the first full moon of the new year.

On that night, a night of families, people traditionally walk in the street and carry lanterns, often shaped like the zodiac animal of that lunar year.

Some communities and neighborhoods still organize walks, and the sight of children parading with their animal lanterns is endearing and memorable.

It's a time of family togetherness and eating glutinous rice dumplings (yuanxiao), round being the symbol of family unity and togetherness.

The annual lantern show at Yuyuan Garden was recently declared an intangible cultural heritage of Shanghai.

To minimize crowd damage, the number of daily visitors is limited, especially on the night of the festival.

Tickets cost 100 yuan (US$14.70) per person.

Chinese people have a long tradition of appreciating lanterns, lights that remind us that winter is ending and spring is ahead.

There are many legends about the origin of the Lantern Festival. The custom dates back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD) when Buddhism flourished. According to one legend, an emperor learned that Buddhist monks marked the 15th day of the first lunar month by paying homage to sarira (cremated remains of Buddha) and lighting lanterns.

So the emperor ordered that lanterns be lit in the imperial palace and in temples on that day. It developed into a grand festival among all people.

Other legends involve prayers to the Taiyi, the god of heaven, who was said to bring light to the world.

"Every year I go to the lantern show here at Yuyuan Garden with my family," says Thomas Wu, a white-collar worker in his 30s. "Frankly, there aren't so many interesting places to go during Spring Festival. It seems this lantern show is a must-see."

Lanterns everywhere, it's a forest of lanterns of all shapes and sizes and arrangements, notably the traditional round red lanterns with golden tassels.

"Surely the highlight of this year's lantern show is the ox," says Shen Xiaoping, chief designer of the lantern show. He has been doing it for nearly 12 years, almost a complete cycle of the 12 animals of the zodiac.

"Every year is a challenge, since we must create a theme linked with the animal and a special scenario," he says.

Usually Shen and his team spend three months on design and another two months making a product.

"The ox isn't too difficult, but the snake year was tricky, since serpents are not associated with things propitious," says Shen. The mouse and monkey were fun.

"We did a 'flower and fruit mountain' for the Monkey King in the Year of the Monkey. Last year, we designed a mouse of fortune. The two projects were very successful," he says.

The task usually requires three months for design and two months for construction.

"The ox is a hard-working animal and loyal to humans," he says. "We show the ox working in fields in different seasons. We need to show the size and vigor of the ox."

The scenes show the ox wading in water, pulling wagons, plowing fields and carrying people on its back.

"So many people are jostling each other on the bridge and I can hardly move a step further," says Wu Ying, a middle-aged tourist from Hangzhou, capital city of neighboring Zhejiang Province. "But I like the atmosphere. What a bustling world with noise and excitement!

"This is really how the Chinese New Year should be."

The legendary dragons, phoenix, fairy ladies and auspicious clouds are all presented vividly.

This year for the first time, the lanterns are illuminated with small fluorescent lights and light-emitting diodes to conserve energy.

"It's a new practice," says Shen. The lantern and decorate materials are also fireproof - otherwise, a fire would be devastating.

Another old custom for Lantern Festival is guessing lantern riddles.

In old days people would write riddles on a piece of paper and post them on lanterns.

Someone who had an answer would remove the riddle paper and take it to the lantern's owner. If the answer was right, the guesser would receive a small gift. The practice began in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

"Riddle guessing here is impossible," says designer Shen. "Maybe some riddles will be written on the lanterns, but there is no one on site to verify the correct answers."

But another important tradition can still be observed at Yuyuan Garden: eating rice balls, yuanxiao or tangyuan, meaning reunion. Made with glutinous rice, they are usually filled with something sweet, such as rose petals, sesame, red bean paste, ground walnuts or dried fruit.

Several small famous restaurants in Yuyuan Garden sell tasty rice ball dumplings. They are always crowded, especially the eateries beside the lake, so there's nothing to do but wait.

"You can't miss the Lantern Show at Yuyuan Garden," Shen laughs. "No exaggeration - there's no other place offering such a glamorous visual feast and delicious food."

And after the festival, what of the fabulous lanterns?

"Most of them will be destroyed because they are too big to be restored," says Shen.

"It's a great pity."


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