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Starfruit and running dogs: celebrating the Lantern Festival with Chinese word games

Even though much of the world has adopted the Gregorian calendar, which is based on movement of the sun, many traditional cultures still observe lunar calendars, which are based on movement of the moon. The beginning of the Chinese lunar year this time fell on 19 February of the Gregorian calendar. Fifteen days later, at the first full moon of the lunar year (on 5 March this year), people celebrate the Lantern Festival, a literal translation of ‘dēnghùi’ 灯会 or ‘dēngjié’ 灯节 in Chinese.

In Chinese culture, there is also the tradition of grouping years in cycles of twelve, associating each year in the cycle with an animal in following order: mouse, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog, and pig. So a girl born this lunar year would ‘belong’ to the Year of the Sheep; in Chinese, she would ‘shŭ yáng’ 属羊 (literally translated: ‘belong sheep.’) Chinese is a tone language, so the diacritics in ‘ŭ’ and in ‘á’ in these two words indicate the tones that must be used in the pronunciation of these vowels. And later, if she goes to school and meets a schoolmate who belongs to the Year of Dragon, she would know she is three years younger than her new friend.

Alongside the various traditions for categorizing periods of time, most cultures also have games that people play with their language. In the English-speaking world, playing Scrabble, doing crossword puzzles, and speaking in Pig Latin are some of the more common language games. The Lantern Festival is a special time in Greater China when people enjoy language games, often with the puzzle written on colorful lanterns. Each puzzle is usually restricted to a category, to make the guessing manageable (similar to the game of charades, where the player has to announce whether the target is a book, song, or movie.)

"Chinese Zodiac Mosaic" by Tom Magliery. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
“Chinese Zodiac Mosaic” by Tom Magliery. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Here is an example of a Chinese puzzle, where the category is ‘fruit’. It consists of a string of animal names, in the same order as the aforementioned yearly cycle: mouse, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, monkey, chicken, dog, and pig. The challenge is to come up with the name of a fruit that the puzzle is pointing to. The first thing to notice is that ‘sheep’ is missing from the list; it should follow ‘horse’ and precede ‘monkey.’ As we learned earlier, the Chinese word for ‘sheep’ is the monosyllable ‘yáng’.

Monosyllables in Chinese typically can mean many things, all homophonous with each other. In addition to ‘sheep’, the syllable ‘yáng’ can mean, among other things, ‘sun’ 阳, ‘ocean’ 洋, and ‘poplar tree’ 杨. There is also a fruit that thrives in Southeast Asia, which is called ‘starfruit’ in English. In Chinese, this fruit is called ‘yángtáo’, corresponding either to ‘poplar fruit’ 杨桃or to ‘ocean fruit’ 洋桃, depending on the Chinese dialect. The ‘táo’ 桃here is a noun that is used in the name of several types of fruit.

Again, ‘táo’ is a syllable with many possible meanings. Alongside ‘fruit’ 桃it can also mean ‘porcelain’ 陶, and ‘to escape’ 逃. Therefore, ‘yángtáo’ is the right answer to the puzzle since it means literally ‘the sheep escaped’ 羊逃 from the list, while homophonously 杨桃 also satisfies the specified category of ‘fruit’. Solving such puzzles teases the mind and evokes endless laughter at Lantern Festivals.

Here is another example, based on similar structure as ‘yángtáo.’ The answer is not so clear-cut, but it has greater sociopolitical interest. The puzzle this time is: mouse, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, and pig. The reader will notice that the animal missing this time is ‘dog’, which is ‘gŏu’ 狗in Chinese. A possible answer here would be the noun ‘zóugŏu’ 走狗, or ‘running dog’, where the ‘zóu’ 走is a verb meaning ‘to run’. This phrase was used frequently during World War II when large parts of China were occupied by Japanese soldiers. It referred to those traitors or ‘collaborators’ in China who served the invading Japanese against the interests of their own country. In any case, puzzles such as these can have different answers, and the one which is best matched to the context will be the most successful.

The Lantern Festival traces back to Buddhist traditions, some two thousand years ago. In addition to the gorgeous lanterns that are prominently displayed, many adorned with exquisite paintings and calligraphy, it is also celebrated by special ethnic dances and foods. In fact, the festival is also called ‘yuánxiāo’ 元宵, which refers to the delicious balls made from glutinous rice flour, often served in hot water with sweet fillings. Even as I write these lines, the holiday spirit of the Lantern Festival is permeating Chinese communities all over the world, devouring the yuánxiāo and each offering their favorite puzzles.

Headline image: “Festival of Lanterns 4” by Laurence & Annie. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

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