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CNY Day 12: The Origin of Yuan Xiao 元宵

origin of yuan xiao jie lantern festival

If you ever shop in a Chinese grocery store, you have probably seen a round, white ball with a variety of fillings, such as peanut butter, hawthorn fruits, or sesame. That is one of the most favored Chinese traditional deserts called 汤圆 (tāng yuán) or 元宵 (yuán xiāo) and mainly served during the Lantern’s Festival.

How did the tradition of eating these sweet dumplings come about? Legend says that during the historic Spring and Autumn Period when China was divided into small kingdoms, the emperor from Kingdom Chu saw a wild fruit floating on the Yangtze River. Curiously, he took a bite and was surprised by the deliciously sweet and beautiful red filling hidden beneath its plain shells.

A bowl of tang yuan. Photo courtesy Creative Commons and Flickr/avlxyz.

Nobody knew what it was, so the Emperor went to the famous Confucius to seek an answer. “浮萍果 (fu2 ping2 guo3) it was,” said Confucius, “and as rare as it is, the Emperor that gets it revives his kingdom in no time.” Hearing this, the Emperor could not help but get excited about the prospect of this yummy, little fruit revitalizing his war torn kingdom! But alas, where could he find more duckweed fruits if they were indeed so precious and rare? The Emperor decided to make a sweet dumpling that looked exactly like the duckweed fruit – a sweet red filling made from hawthorn fruits wrapped by a white shell of sticky rice. Since the Emperor happened to discover this all on the 15th day of the Chinese lunar calendar, making and eating 汤圆 has become a tradition for the Lantern’s Festival.

Did the Emperor revive his kingdom? Yes, he did. During his reign, Kingdom Chu once again became one of the most powerful in the southern China; and this Emperor was the famous Zhaowang (楚昭王, BC523~BC489).

Esther Lee

Esther Lee

Esther is an ABC (American born Chinese, not already been chewed) mom trying to teach her kids Chinese and head of Marketing at Better Chinese.

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