Daily Drip

Lantern Festival, Xi Jinping, and Yuan Shikai’s Sticky Balls

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Today is the Lantern Festival in China, marking the official end of the Lunar New Year celebrations. Most folks celebrate by admiring lanterns, solving riddles, eating tangyuan (sweet balls of stuffed glutinous rice flour), and blowing up their remaining stock of New Year fireworks (unless you happen live in a major urban area).

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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 family being together.

But these mini-balls of goodness go by a few different names. There is the descriptive name tangyuan (湯圓; literally ), and the more poetic yuanxiao (元宵).

(I also 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 early ’00s were taking their menu cues from South Park.)

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 — and has a special resonance in Beijing today.

In December and January of 1913, President 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 a colorful — albeit unverifiable — legend, during the Lunar New Year in 1913, Yuan heard a peddler in the streets calling out “Yuan……Xiaoooo!” and was incredibly displeased.

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, his surname) removed (消; xiāo). In response, Yuan Shikai ordered that, henceforth, “yuanxiao” be referred to only as “tangyuan.”

It’s a good story, and Yuan Shikai, dead for over a century, has again become a hot topic in Beijing following the announcement that the Chinese Communist Party plans to scrap presidential term limits, thus clearing the way for Xi Jinping to remain in power indefinitely.

In 1915, Yuan Shikai unveiled his own plan to become emperor, arguing that the country needed a strong authoritarian figure to maintain stability and progress. The proposal backfired when elites throughout the country refused to roll back the clock on political reform — however sputtering and meager those reforms were in practice — forcing Yuan to abandon his monarchical ambitions in March 1916.

Xi Jinping is a very different leader than Yuan Shikai, and China is in a much stronger place than it was in 1915. That said, the phrase “Yuan Shikai,” as well as Yuan’s proposed reign name (“Hongxian”), a nickname for the silver dollar bearing Yuan’s image (“Yuan Big Head”), and other variations of Yuan’s name have been intermittently blocked online in China this past week. More obscure phrases like Winnie the Pooh, “Board the airplane” (a homophone for “ascend the throne,” both deng ji), and the letter “N” have also run afoul of busy censors.

Whether Xi Jinping is a new Yuan Shikai remains to be seen, but the Chinese state remains obsessed with satirical puns and inconvenient phrases. That’s hardly a sign of confidence.

I first wrote about the Yuan Shikai/Tangyuan legend on the blog Jottings from the Granite Studio in 2016.

Cover image: Sinomedia.ge

Jeremiah Jenne
    Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.

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