The Origination and Development of Chinese Folk Lanterns

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Chinese folk lanterns initiated from palace lanterns and palace lanterns originated from the custom of hanging lanterns at the night of the 15th of the 1st lunar month (Yuanxiao Jie / Lantern Festival) around in East Han dynasty.

About the origination of Yuanxiao Festival, generally there are three versions: one is that Yuanxiao Festival was to offer a sacrifice to the Heaven, another version is that it came from Taoism and the third one was from Buddhism. Hong Mai, a person in Song dynasty agreed with the first point of view. He stated it in《Rongjia Suibi (informal eassy)》: “Han nationality offered a sacrifice to the Heaven from the eve of the last day of a year till the morning of next day. Today’s people aprriciate the moon in the evening of the first lunar mid-month. Lantern sightseeing in the evening followed this custom. ” Taoists think, there are three officers who respectively stay in the Heaven, on land and in water. On the 15th of the first month when the moon goes round, Taoists have a ceremony for Heaven officer, on the 15th of the seventh month when the moon is round, Taoists hold a memorial ceremony for the officer on land and on the 15th of the tenth month when the moon turns round, they do the same thing but for the officer in water. Therefore, Holding lantern shows on the 15th of the first month originated from Taoism activities. The version that it came from Buddhism regards, Buddhism likens fire to the invinciable might of Buddha. It’s said by Buddhism that it was on the 30th of December in the west but on the 15th of the first month  in lunar year that Buddhaism Sakyamuni, the earliest ancestor of Buddhists turned to be a god when he appeared to subdue an evil. So, Buddhists held lantern shows to remember Sakyamuni. The custom of lantern festivals held on the 15th of the first month was handed down. In Emperor Ming period of East Han dynasty when two Indian Buddhist monks came to China for missionary work, they encountered censure from Taoists, which led to a fight against palace sodiers. In the event, their taken-with Buddha figure was burnt but not damaged at all. Emperor Ming was deeply touched by the power of Buddha and gave an order that holding lantern shows on the 15th when the earliest ancetor of Buddha turned to be a god. This version is more creditable as it can be proved by that the palace lanterns in Tang dynasty featured strong Buddhism flavor. Palace lanterns were used to light and for appreciation in royal palaces, but lantern makers came from ordinary people. The rulers in ancient times hoped to take the chance of lantern festival to show off their “sharing pleasure with people”, so, they advocated to have craftsmen among people to make lanterns in order to present a false piture of peace and prosperity.

As the basic elements of Lantern Festival, lantern making goes back to ancient times. The multishaped and multicolored as well as grotesque and gaudy artistic expression ways are right the true reflection of folk cultural activities in prime of each dynasty. Owing to the existence of the custom, some traditional lamps and lanterns could continue to exist even when electrical lamps have been rapidly advanced today.

The Local Unique of Folk Lanterns

Making wide varieties of folk lanterns is a kind of complex folk art by using multityped materials, multiskills and multiornaments. It combines many folk customs , roots deeply among people. For instance, Lantern Festival has been a social entertainment carnivo for hundreds of years. So long as working people led a stable and well-off lives, they would have good mood to involve in the event.

traditional lanterns

traditional lanterns

Guangdong Lanterns

The most famors lanterns in Guangdong come from Foshan and Chaozhou. Fozhou lantern is locally called “Dengcei (colored lamps)”. It was flourishing as early as in Ming dynasty. Chaozhou lantern existed before Ming and Yuan dynasties. From late Qign dynasty to early period of the Republic of China, a kind of dggerel written on “Bai Pin Deng (screen lanterns)” was very popular with people. The contents of lanterns ranged from “Rmance of Three Kingdoms” to “The Water Margin”. The forms were also of wide varieties. When it was the most popular in history, totally more than 200 screen lanterns in Chaozhou were displayed for 10 days accompanied with local fairs. Some lanterns were shaped like fruits, fishes, dragons and phoenixes. The main types of Chaozhou lantern ranged from festive lanterns, gauze lanterns, colored lanterns, palace lanterns, wall lanterns and merry-go-round lanterns (a lantern with papercut figures of men, animals, etc. made to revolve when the lantern is lit). The contents mainly experessed historical figures, opera stories and fairy tales. Some of screen lanterns could show a full story by using each cut-off screen to draw a picture. The lanterns with 45–120mm tall figures were called “Huadeng  (festive lantern)”, the lanterns with 10—40 mm tall figures were named “Shadeng (gauze lantern)” while the individual lanterns shaped like birds, flowers, fishes, fruits and gourds were called “Caideng (colored lantern)”. The earliest festive lanterns took bamboo as the frames and were coated with satin or tough silk material. The faces of figures were painted with rice-paper plant slices. As night falls, graceful lanterns attracted crowds of people.

Beijing Lantern

In Beijing, it was the 8th of the first month in lunar year that people held a memorial ceremony for star gods. It was said each family hung lanterns for them in this day when all star gods came down to the world.

These cotton paper lanterns were picked up at random like flowers and then lit by dipping in oil. The numbers of lamps set in one lantern ranged from 49 to 108. The ceremony began at zero o’clock with setting an incense burner table and serving some soup and cakes, then lighting lanterns, which was to pay good wishes to all star gods. From the 13th to the 16th of the first month in lunar year, lanterns hung through out yards to gates were lit, which was called spreading snuff, meaning to get rid of unhappiness.

The palace lanterns in Beijing are divided into two categories of six-side palace lanterns and festive lanterns. Six-side lanterns are traditional palace lanterns of hexahedron. Festive lanterns are developed from six-side palace lanterns. Most of their frames are made of red wood, red sandalwood and namu and coated with satin or tough silk material or glass. The lantern poles are sometimes decorated with bone carvings, bronze castings, enamelings and painting carvings. There are many kinds of festive lanterns for different founctions such as pendant lanterns hung in sitting rooms or in auditoriums, table lanterns set on desks, standing lanterns arranged beside chairs and wall lanterns fixed on walls. The frames of gauze lanterns are built with three year old bamboo strips, forming ellipse shapes and mounted with satin. Candles are set inside of lanterns and not blown out by wind, hence the name of “annoy-wind lantern”.

Jiangsu Lanterns

Floating lanterns in water is the custom of Jiangsu people. In the evening of the 30th of the seventh month in lunar year, local people use colored paper to make graceful boat-shape lanterns that are loaded with candles and a small quantity of bean oil and sweetgrass. The old people drive boats to set the lanterns on water. Multicolored lanterns float with water waves, creating a grand sight. It’s said that a serious drought happened in Xianfeng period of Qing dynasty because “King Dragon” refused to drop rain for a long time. A small horse went through all kinds of hardships and difficulties and killed “King Dragon”, he drew off the flag calling for rain to get rid of the drought. To remember the small horse, people held this ceremony and the custom remains

In the towns and rural areas in south China, there exists the custom of “dragon lanterns” dance in various big vents from Spring Festival to Lantern Festival every year. In the duration, people just stand along streets or around squares or stay in their villages to appreciate dragon lantern dancing. The performance truly adds a warmer atmosphere to vocations. Dragon lantern performance is a unique traditional folk entertainment among people in the nation.

The festive lanterns in the south of the Yangtze River reached its peak in Suzhou in Song dynasty. The folk lanterns in Nanjing has a long history either. Lantern shows are held in the Confucian Temple by River Huihe (the section built in Qin dynasty) in each Yuanxiao festival. This is the custom handed down from Zhu Yuanzhang, Emperor Mingtaizu of Ming Dynasty when he set up the capital city in Nanjing.

Festive lanterns have wide varieties of shapes such as lion lanterns, carpfish lanterns, rabbit lanterns, frog lanterns, lotus-flower lanterns, flower-bascket lanterns, etc. Large lanterns stand taller than a person while small ones are just as short as bees. The figures from operas in merry-go-round lanterns undoubtedly play the most attractive role in lantern shows.

The lanterns sold in lantern markets are too numerous to mention induvidually. Lantern pedlers sell them by lifting in hands or carrying on the shoulders. Occasionally, hundreds of lanterns are carried on one shoulder pole, At this moment , you could only see a large lantern moving without seeing any shadow of its porter.

Zhejiang Lantern

It’s said that the lanterns in Xiashi of Zhejiang initiated in Kangxi period of Qing dynasty. Up to Guangxu period of the same dynasty, they had been not only as famors as those in Beijing, Guangdong and Nanjing but also well known at home and abroad for the unique charactersistics. In Kangxi period, lanterns in Xiashi mainly featured the paper-made figures of such walking animals as tigers, lions, leopards and elephants. Later, a kind of “Zhu Lian San” came into being. The making procedure is first to coat the frame with several layers of paper, then carve the paper by knives or needles to form the patterns of water and hills, birds and flowers, worms and fishes or decorate it with calligraphy, and is the origination of today’s famors needle-hole lanterns. In Jiaqing period, lantern shows were extremely popular. There appeared many small ornamental lanterns such as merry-go-round lanterns, fish lanterns, bird lanterns, flower basket lanterns, chain lanterns of ancient coin money, watermelon lanterns and potted landscape lanterns. Up to late Qing dynasty and the early years of the Republic of China, the form of lanterns was developed to large sized lanterns imitating famors pavilions, pagodas, classical buildings, dragon boats and pick-lotus boats, etc.

The frames of Xiashi lanterns are built by lead lines and fine bamboo strips, decorated with differently folded paper or silk knots. The most unique craft reflects on the lampshades that are made by combining needle or knife carvings and paintings. This kind of festive lanterns are pasted with four layers of Xuan paper, the small holes in the thich paper stabbed by needles or cut by knives to form varieties of beautiful patterns. Lights come out of the holes to draw the outlines of water and hills, flowers and trees, figures of men and animals. This lantern making craft has far more attraction than those to make gauze lanterns, silk lanterns and glass lanterns.

Fujian Lantern

Fujian lantern also ranges wide varieties of kinds and well known around the world. Fujian has mandarin-shape lanterns, holed multicorner lanterns, fold-away watermelon lanterns. Crocodile lanterns appear in Zhangzhou and merry-go-round lanterns are often seen in Xiamen. In Quanzhou, lotus flower lanterns, coin and drum lanterns are loved by people. Radish and cabbage could be hollowd to be lanterns that are called “thousand years lantern” because the candle might not die out even when kicked by children as footballs. What they have more is the amazing and interesting “character lanterns”.

The most unique lanterns come from Quanzhou

Quanzhou has enjoyed the fame of lantern city since ancient times because of the poem “the moonlight shines the ancient pagoda for thousand years and the rainbow hangs lanterns streching for ten miles of Chang’an street.” The crafts of Quanzhou festive lanterns vary from different frame materials. The frames could be built with wood, iron lines and bamboo strips. Additionally, the way to fold paper into square pipes could be used to build the frame, and coat the frame with paper or silk material decorated with poems, calligraphy or paintings to get lanterns. The pasted paper or silk material also could be holed by needles to form the outlines of man or animal figures. The way of hollow-out is often used to form carvings. According to the characteristics of festive lanterns, they could be made into lanterns for the usage of pendancy, hanging, laying, carrying in hands, dragging and waving in hands.

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