IT IS common knowledge that Chap Goh Meh (Hokkien for the “15th night”) signifies the last day of the Chinese New Year festivities.
Many may know too that this 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar is also known as yuan xiao jie or Lantern Festival, and the glutinous rice balls are called yuan xiao in northern China while their southern countrymen call it tang yuan.
Perhaps less known are the numerous activities associated with Chap Goh Meh and as the celebration morphed over the centuries, so did the ubiquitous lanterns synonymous with Chinese New Year.
According to Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall chief secretary Tang Ah Chai, the red lanterns have evolved from simple paper designs to mechanical ones that rotate. People also started hanging riddles under the lanterns as yet another activity -- called “cai deng mi” (guessing the lantern riddle) -- to entertain celebrants.
He said there were also special shows called la yang pian, which is a slide show of pictures or puppets.
“The way Chap Goh Meh is celebrated has changed, it has the atmosphere of a carnival now,” he added.
Tang said there were several historical records of the festival’s origin but no one knew for certain which was the authentic one.
“One theory is that during the Han Dynasty around 208BC, the festival was only celebrated in the palace and it had a religious aspect.
“Prayers were held to mark the festival and people pray to the deity Tai Yi. The emperor used the celebration and the religious rites to show that he had the God-given mandate to be the ruler.
“The palace would be adorned with lanterns,” he said.
He said another origin lore related that Emperor Wen of Han Dynasty had won the battle on the 15th day during a coup d’état and to mark his victory, he encouraged a celebration on the day.
“It was said that the festival was also intended to spread Buddhism, and people would hang lanterns as part of the celebration.
“In Taoism, Chap Goh Meh is known as Shang Yuan Jie.
“During the Tang Dynasty, it was celebrated for three days, five during the Song Dynasty and 10 during the Ming Dynasty.
Tang said the festival later spread to the common folk and had lost its religious aspect.
“The other two important dates for Taoists are Zhong Yuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival) on the 15th of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, and Xia Yuan Jie on the 15th of the tenth month.
“These days it seems like more emphasis is placed on Zhong Yuan Jie,” he said.
Present day celebration
Tang reveals that there is a custom during the Chap Goh Meh celebration known as Zou Bai Bing, which means to walk away the diseases.
“People are encouraged to go out for a walk instead of being cooped up at home.
“It is believed that one is able to ward off diseases by going out for a walk that day,” he said.
There are several differences in the celebration of the festival in Malaysia.
“Tang Yuan signifies harmony and family togetherness; people in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong still adhere to the tradition of eating yuan xiao or tang yuan, but in Malaysia, the rice balls are usually eaten during Dong Zhi (Winter Solstice).
“In Malaysia, the custom of hanging lanterns and lantern riddles is usually done during Mid-Autumn Festival instead,” Tang said.
Love is in the air
Of course, we are no strangers to the fact that Chap Goh Meh is also known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day as during ancient times, single women were not allowed to venture out of their homes except on this day. Hence, this is the time for singles to mingle.
The other Chinese Valentine’s Day is the Qixi festival, celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
Tang said the activity of tossing mandarin oranges into the river was only practised in Malaysia and Singapore, more so in predominantly Hokkien-populated areas.
“It is common for womenfolk to throw mandarin oranges into a river or pond and for men to scoop up the fruit. In recent years, men also join in the fun and throw bananas.
“People would write their contact numbers on the oranges.
“You can see this in the Klang Valley, Malacca and Penang or places with a large Chinese population,” he said.