History of Paper Lanterns
Paper lanterns have long been symbols of joy and celebration, especially in Chinese culture and throughout Asia. It is believed that paper lanterns were first created in China, fashioned from oiled paper stretched on wood or bamboo frames. Paper lanterns heralded happy events like weddings and births, and were an integral feature of festivals. Taking numerous shapes and forms, they also had pragmatic functions like bringing light to homes and darkened village streets, and sending supplications to heaven. As symbols of joy, lanterns remain an important part of Chinese festivals, keeping alive what began as a cottage industry hundreds of years ago.
According to the Chinese calendar, the 15th night of the eighth month (usually in September or October) is the Mid-Autumn Festival. It originated as a festival of thanksgiving for a successful harvest, reflecting China's history as an agricultural society. The tradition of Mid-Autumn Festival paper lanterns is said to date back to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to A.D. 907), when an emperor commissioned the construction of 30 enormous lantern-towers, each 1,500 feet high, and ornately decorated with gold, silver, jade and precious gems. While most people could not replicate such elaborate lanterns, the lantern tradition took hold in the form of transparent paper on thin silk.
Parade of Lanterns
Subsequently, paper alone was used to make decorative lanterns. Mid-Autumn Festival paper lanterns are fashioned in a myriad of shapes and sizes, from crepe paper rabbits and fish to cellophane birds and planes with glitter-covered wings. The evening streets of Hong Kong, among other Asian cities, are quite a sight to behold, illuminated by hundreds of lit lanterns being paraded on hand held sticks by their proud owners, most of them children.
While traditional lanterns are the mainstay of the Mid-Autumn Festival, some new designs have joined the line-up, including rockets, for instance, which were incorporated in the 1960s when the first moon landing took place. More recently "Miss Kitty" has also become a popular lantern theme. Another change to the traditional Chinese lantern is the introduction of battery-operated candles taking the place of lit candles.
The Lantern Festival
On the 15th day of the Chinese New Year (calculated according to the lunar calendar, and usually falling in January or February), people celebrate the Lantern Festival, a colorful way to mark the formal completion of the new year festivities and to light the way into spring and a new year. The Lantern Festival, also known as the Yuen Siu Festival, traditionally includes displays of beautifully crafted paper lanterns, often made in the shapes of Chinese zodiac signs, as well as lions, dragons and other popular symbols of good fortune. Sometimes lanterns include riddles written on attached strips of paper. Small prizes are awarded to the successful riddle solvers. This was originally a practice whereby scholars could prove how knowledgeable they were, but it has become a popular practice for anyone to try.
Lantern carnivals during festival times provide opportunities for schoolchildren to create special, hand-made paper lanterns and perhaps win a prize as they compete for top honors. These carnivals draw huge crowds that come to admire the innovative lantern creations and special events that might include lion dances, music performances, Chinese opera, and other forms of entertainment (see Resources).
Based in Northern California, Maureen Katemopoulos has been a freelance writer for more than 25 years. Her articles on travel, the arts, cuisine and history have appeared in publications such as "Stanislaus Magazine," "Orientations," "The Asia Magazine" and "The Peninsula Group Magazine." She holds a Baccalaureate degree in journalism from Stanford University.
- Maureen Katemopoulos