Tag Archives: Chinese lanterns

Year of the Phoenix?

Year of the Phoenix?   —by Jinny Batterson

During the shortest days of the year for the past several years, an exhibit of lighted figures has come to our town—a multi-acre display of LED-illumined silk lanterns produced in the Chinese city of Zigong, in Sichuan province. Zigong’s artisans have long crafted lanterns for Chinese festivals. In recent decades they’ve gained global fame for their beautiful handiwork. Increasing numbers of U.S. cities are using winter-dormant park spaces to mount both static and interactive displays. 

Our town’s display centerpiece is near the shore of a multi-acre lake: until this year a magnificent dragon (shown in a previous post—https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/01/03/chinese-lantern-festival-an-american-version/).  When I attended this year’s event just before (western) New Year, I wondered, as I wandered down a slope decorated with shapes of real and mythical animals, if the dragon had taken its accustomed place. No dragon, not this year. Instead, an equally impressive floating display of a mythical phoenix, complete with pulsing lights going from head to tail.  

The night I saw the display, the weather was fairly mild for late December. Attendees from multiple cultural traditions mingled and oohed and aahed at the depiction of the fabulous bird. A little research about legends of the phoenix show the magic bird as a staple in the mythology of multiple civilizations, including Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese: 

“In Asia the phoenix reigns over all the birds, and is the symbol of the Chinese Empress and feminine grace, as well as the sun and the south. The sighting of the phoenix is a good sign that a wise leader has ascended to the throne and a new era has begun. It was representative of Chinese virtues: goodness, duty, propriety, kindness and reliability. Palaces and temples are guarded by ceramic protective beasts, all led by the phoenix.” ( https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ancient-symbolism-magical-phoenix-002020; accessed 2020/03/27) 

When our town’s lantern display was packed up for return to Zigong in mid-January, it was nearly time for Chinese New Year (or “Spring Festival,” celebrated in 2020 starting on January 25). The upcoming Chinese year would start another cycle of the 12-animal Chinese zodiac, which includes the dragon, along with eleven other real-life animals (in sequence: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig). So far, the phoenix has not become part of the Chinese zodiac, though the mythic bird is often considered the feminine counterpart to the masculine dragon. 

Now that covid-19 has become a global pandemic, I’ve been asked, like more and more people all over the world, to self-isolate at home to reduce the speed of the virus’s spread, allowing health care systems time to adapt by “flattening the curve” of new infections. If I’m a bit bored, it’s a small price to pay for a larger social good. The next generation in our family includes two members of hospital medical staffs, and their safety is a big concern.  

This enforced time at home gives me license to engage in reveries about the mythical bird. Many legends of the phoenix depict it as an extremely long-lived creature who senses approaching death, builds her own funeral pyre, and then dies in fiery majesty. Shortly afterwards, the next generation of phoenix rises from the ashes.  

What might the symbol of the phoenix mean as 2020 begins with a global pandemic—the death of an overly competitive ethos and the dawning of an age of more thorough global cooperation? a rethinking of our interlocking systems of education, health care, corrections, and social welfare? a reining in of our preoccupation with material wealth? renewed reverence for the natural world that supports us all? 

Let’s hope that 2020 will turn out to be a year of the phoenix.   

Phoenix lantern at NC Chinese Lantern Festival

Pandas Playing Mahjongg–Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival

Pandas Playing Mahjongg, Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival 

                                                        —by Jinny Batterson

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Panda Land 2019

For the past several years, a traveling exhibit of LED-lit silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter. Last year on the night I attended the festival, the air was bitingly cold. Crowds were sparse. This year, on a clear weekend evening a good bit warmer than typical for early January, I ate an early supper, then put on a hoodie, drove to the festival site, parked in a free adjacent lot, and walked to the box office to get a ticket. I arrived a little after the festival’s 6 p.m. opening—once the sky was dark enough to provide a good backdrop for the thousands of lanterns and fanciful lit shapes.

I’d assumed that by arriving early, I’d “beat the crowds” and minimize my wait time to purchase tickets (cheaper at the gate than by internet) and then gain entry to the exhibit space. The wait wasn’t too long—maybe twenty minutes in all–but it turned out I’d arrived at the height of that evening’s viewing hours for multi-generational families. Rather than come later in the evening, they were enjoying the spectacle before youngsters’ bedtimes, at the same time taking advantage of reduced or free entry for young children.

The star of the show, a huge brightly lit dragon, again stretched along the shallows of Symphony Lake for a couple hundred feet. It was even larger and more intricate than last year’s dragon.  A few of the other exhibits were similar to what I’d seen previously, but arranged differently and with different emphasis.  New features had been added, too, including a set of large lantern “drums” near the entrance, with a real drum that kids could pound on to make the lights glow brighter.

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Drums

My favorite set of lanterns was “panda land.” I’d previously spent time in China in the region where pandas are native. This exhibit featured stylized panda figures in human poses—riding a bicycle or, my absolute top pick, playing the Chinese tiled game of mahjongg, a sort of cross between dominoes and the card game spades.  Periodically, performers on the festival stage did acrobatics or Chinese dances—I watched briefly, then went back to the pandas. This year’s lantern festival is nearly over. The weather for remaining evenings is predicted to be less pleasant than the evening I went.

If you live locally, I’d encourage you to go if you can. Too often these days our airwaves are full of insults, ricocheting threats, and fear mongering. Against this background, an outdoor stroll alongside others speaking many languages, all of us watching the whimsical uses we can make of our technologies when we’re not busy fussing with each other, is, dare I say it, priceless.