Having lived in the United States my entire life, I haven’t been able to experience the joy of seeing a collage of beautiful, bright lanterns light up the night sky. The lanterns that are lit in Chinatown during the holiday are nothing to scoff at, but when I compare them to those that are described in the stories of my grandparents, I really do regret not having not gone to Asia at least once in my life.
But enough about my personal sentiment. The lanterns that are lit during Chinese holidays are usually made out of paper, and inside they hold a small candle. More recently, however, lanterns have begun to be made with plastic along with a battery-operated light on the inside in order to appeal to younger audiences. After all, having a child run in the streets with a highly flammable object is very dangerous. As I had mentioned previously in a different post, these lanterns can vary tremendously, coming in different colors, sizes, and shapes.
The scale of some of these productions never fail to disappoint. You can just imagine the smile on a kid’s face when a huge boat passes down a river lined with paper flowers and bright lights. There is a side of the lantern festivities that cater to the more intellectually-inclined person, too.
People who celebrate this holiday more traditionally also follow the custom of attaching small slips of paper to lanterns that have riddles written on them. Although these riddles are more commonly done during the Lantern Festival (not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival), people still partake in challenging the various passersby. The riddles that are written on these lanterns often employ puns and the use of similar phonetics that are unique to the Chinese language (for example, 四 and 死 are both pronounced “si,” but the first character means four while the second character means death). Because of this, it is difficult to transcribe these riddles into other languages. The riddles often are written in short phrases, where there a question, a hint, and an answer, and all the while, no characters, except numbers, can be reused in the riddles. I’ve looked at a couple of riddles myself, and given that I can’t speak or write Chinese very well, I get completely lost.
To save you, and myself, some frustration, here is an example of easy Chinese lantern riddle1.
Riddle: 田中 Hint: 学习字
Answer and Explanation: The riddle is pronounced “tian zhong,” which directly translates to “middle of the field” (‘田’ means field and ‘中’ means middle). The hint is pronounced “xue xi zi,” which means to study the characters. When you get this hint, it is literally telling you to look at the two characters given to you in the riddle. The phrase “middle of the field” with the hint “study the characters” is telling you to look at the 田 character, and from this, you get the answer 十, which means ten in Chinese.
With thousands of different Chinese characters, the lantern riddles can get very complicated, as you may imagine. These intellectually-stimulating riddles add another flavor to this major holiday, providing people with some food for thought as they stroll along a river bank. If you would like to solve more riddles, feel free to visit these websites: