Samantha Liu, Contributing Photographer

The Chinese Program hosted a Lantern Festival celebration on Friday, Feb. 24, attracting over 250 attendees from across Yale for an afternoon of food, performances, karaoke and cultural celebration.  

Held during the lunar Yuanxiao Festival, the event spotlighted the work of students involved in the Chinese Program, featuring pre-recorded performances made by each Mandarin class and brushstroke calligraphy created during weekly club workshops. Attendees ranged from current Mandarin students and graduate students to curious teachers and family members.

The event also marked the first in-person Lantern Festival celebration of its kind by the program. This made the event especially special for Rongzhen Li, the director of the Yale Chinese Program and a senior lector in Mandarin. 

“I hope everyone can remember that awe in seeing a student dance, or the happiness of winning the raffle, or the excitement of winning a raffle and taking a lantern back home,” Li told the News. “I wanted to let people ring in the New Year together and experience our students’ creations.”

For the day, Dow Hall — which usually houses the Center for Language Study — had been transformed to resemble a traditional festival setting, adorned with riddle-covered hanging lanterns, brushstroke calligraphy and red banners promising good fortune. In line with Yuanxiao tradition, individuals who answered the riddles correctly would be allowed to take the lanterns home.

Previously, the program held annual Lunar New Year gatherings at Great Wall Restaurant, where a limited number of students could wrap dumplings together. When the festival moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event became large enough to accommodate anyone who wanted to come. Students and teachers watched pre-recorded videos by each Mandarin class, while raffles and performances occurred over Zoom. 

Although Li spoke positively of the pre-pandemic dumpling events, she emphasized the fulfillment of seeing everyone able to participate together online. After three years of virtual celebration, the Chinese Program wanted to host a similarly large-scale gathering in-person. 

“What the Chinese department really wanted to do was create a space for all people from different levels of the Chinese class programming to meet each other,” said Ritik Chamola ’24, a student organizer for the event. “More than that, it’s just really an opportunity to celebrate our work.”

Besides exhibiting student videos, Chamola and the organizers planned an array of other events, including mahjong, crafts and paper-cutting. In one room, students experienced an authentic tea-tasting ceremony run by a tea house, learning about the flavors and origins of freshly brewed tea. Further down the hall, students karaoked to popular Chinese songs.

Louie Lu ’23, who was a former production and design editor for the News, discussed the spirit of immersion and collaboration at the event. As he listened to students singing karaoke, he pointed out how many of them sang in regional dialects in Cantonese, Taiwanese and Yue. 

“The Chinese department is really a way to promote not only Chinese culture, but a culture that has influenced — and has been influenced by — different cultures in East Asia and Southeast Asia,” Lu said.  

Li highlighted the cultural ethos of each activity; mahjong, for instance, is about “rendering order out of disorder.” Similarly, she said, students who tried calligraphy, in copying down traditional idioms, learned character-writing and philosophical values. One paper bore brushstrokes reading “上善若水” — that one should be adaptable as water. 

The event’s main show began with an exhibition of the videos — including skits, singing and musical performances — which students in each Mandarin class had recorded. Afterward came a live traditional dance and performance on the guzheng, a Chinese string instrument. 

For Li, seeing an audience of 200 gathered for the show was the most gratifying aspect.  

“I was touched seeing such a large crowd, all of them hushed, watching this student dance, or attentively watching the other student play the guzheng,” Li said. “It made me a little emotional.”

A raffle followed the performances, in which prizes, including calligraphy by instructor Wei Su and Chinese Program merchandise, were given to lucky students. 

“You can tell [the Chinese Program] puts a lot of effort into these events, so they’re always really fun,” Sophie Price ’25 told the News.  

Price, who had come with the rest of her L4 class, was one of many attendees at the event who were not of Chinese heritage. Given that many Mandarin classes are filled by individuals simply curious about the language, organizers and guests spoke approvingly of the diverse turnout, which also included international students and graduate students. Many teachers from the Center for Language Study also came in support of their colleagues. 

As an individual born and raised in China, Xianda Huang GRD ’24 came to the event hoping to re-experience a traditional national festival. The experience “exceeded expectations,” Huang said, because of the diversity of people represented. 

“People from different backgrounds are all here, not just ethnically Chinese individuals,” Huang said in an interview with the News. “That makes me really happy.”

Li and Huang’s comments have been translated from Mandarin.

Lu also pointed out how such a festival can “transcend[s] political disputes.” He acknowledged ongoing tensions between China and the U.S., but emphasized the importance of events such as this one in facilitating cross-cultural understanding. 

“There’s a lot of politicization today of simply being anti-China because of the totalitarian government,” Lu said. “I think this community is very much focused on culture and unity, instead of division.”

This feeling of inclusivity is one which runs beyond the Lantern Festival. Three students interviewed described the tight-knit nature of their Mandarin classes. Other attendees also praised the dedication of their teachers, who motivated them to come to the celebration. For Chamola, this was part of what drove him to engage more with the Chinese Program.

“People who are part of the Chinese department, whether as students or as teachers, are like a family,” Chamola said. 

The 2023 Lantern Festival was sponsored by the Council on East Asian Studies.

Samantha Liu covers Yale New Haven Health for the SciTech desk. Originally from New Jersey, she is a prospective pre-medical student and Comparative Literature major in Grace Hopper College.