The 15th day of the first lunar month is the Yuan Xiao Festival, known as the Lantern Festival in English. The word “lantern” is used in the English version for a reason. On this day, people in the past would decorate their homes and halls with lanterns and streamers, and in the evening, everyone would have a chance to appreciate the festive, colorful decorations. The leading role of the Yuan Xiao decorations is the lanterns, ergo the Lantern Festival.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is the first English dictionary designed for non-native speakers of English. First published in 1948, the dictionary is not only authoritative, but also practical. Since its first publication, it has been in great demand worldwide. Its 10th edition was published in 2020, including an entry for “Lantern Festival” for the first time — a belated yet pleasant surprise.
However, when I checked the entry, I was shocked by how the dictionary defines Lantern Festival. According to the dictionary, the Lantern Festival is not the Yuan Xiao Festival that people are familiar with in Taiwan; instead, it is defined as a traditional Japanese festival called “Bon.”
According to the dictionary, the Lantern Festival is “a Japanese Buddhist festival that takes place in August, when people show respect to the dead.”
In Japan, the Bon festival takes place on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. If a spiritual analogy is to be drawn, the Japanese Bon is closer to Taiwan’s Tomb Sweeping Day.
After checking a variety of authoritative sources concerning the English language, I found that when the Japanese Bon is mentioned in an English context, it is directly called “Bon” or “O-Bon.” In other words, in most sources, the Lantern Festival means Yuan Xiao Festival.
In 2017, “sky lantern” was added to the most authoritative English dictionary in the world, the Oxford English Dictionary. According to the dictionary, the earliest quotation of “sky lantern” is found in 1989 in the Taiwanese magazine Sinorama (now Taiwan Panorama), in which Pingsi (Pingxi, 平溪) and its signature sky lanterns were mentioned.
While northern Taiwan is famous for sky lanterns, southern Taiwan boasts the beehive fireworks.
In the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry of “rocket frame,” Tainan’s Yanshui District (鹽水) appears in the quotation in its earlier Wade-Giles spelling as “Yenshui.” A quote from British Sinologist Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China is used as an example: “It may not be generally known that rocket frames or multiple launchers can still be seen at the present day if one goes to Yenshui.”
Among Taiwan’s traditional festivals, I believe the Lantern Festival is the most lively and entertaining. It is a festival for all ages to enjoy and should be worth promoting extensively to every corner of the world. During the Lantern Festival, all sorts of folk customs and activities are distinctive of Taiwanese culture. The festival itself is rich and fascinating, pleasurable and amusing. It is casual, but highly enchanting.
Hopefully, everyone would soon celebrate the Lantern Festival in their own land, sharing the joy across countries and oceans.
Hugo Tseng is an associate professor and former chair of Soochow University’s English language and literature department.
Translated by Liu Yi-hung
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