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Imperial Politics, the Lantern Festival, and Yuan Shikai’s Balls

Did Yuan Shikai try and change the name of a popular Lantern Festival tradition?

Today is the lantern festival in Beijing, marking the official end of the Lunar New Year celebrations. Beijingers celebrate by admiring lanterns, solving riddles, eating tangyuan, and blowing up their remaining stock of New Year fireworks in creative and unusual ways. Like this guy…


Of the different ways to mark the occasion, my personal favorite is tangyuan. While recipes differ around China, the basic form is a filling (fruit, sesame, red bean, or, more recently, chocolate, candy, or peanut butter) mixed with rice flour and then boiled. The small round tangyuan are said to resemble the first full moon of the new year and symbolize the family being together.

There’s is however the question of what to call these mini-balls of goodness.

For example, I once saw them advertised on a menu — and I can’t tell you how much I wish I were making this up — as the “chef’s special sticky filled balls.” Apparently, local Beijing restaurants in the 00s were taking their menu cues from South Park.

There is the descriptive name “tangyuan” 湯圓 and the more poetic “yuanxiao” 元宵. Today, references to tangyuan outnumber yuanxiao about 2-1. One theory as to why the name tangyuan is more popular today, especially in the north, has to do with the perils of imperial politics.

In December and January of 1913, Yuan Shikai was already consolidating his power at the expense of the new Republic of China and plotting to make himself an absolute ruler. Yuan’s actions were deeply unpopular and in his twisted little walrus heart, Yuan knew that.

According to the story, during the Lunar New Year in 1913, Yuan heard a peddler in the streets calling out “Yuan……Xiaoooo!” What was probably just a hawker’s cry to buy more rice balls (元宵 Yuánxiāo), the paranoid Yuan heard as a revolutionary call to have Yuán 袁 removed 消 xiāo. In response, Yuan Shikai ordered that, henceforth, “yuanxiao” be referred to only as “tangyuan.”

Yuan Shikai found it difficult to undo 2000 years of tradition. (Although it was also under Yuan’s regime that the rebranding of “Lunar New Year” to “Spring Festival” began.) The name yuanxiao ultimately survived the attempts by Yuan to purge the name from Chinese culture.