Tag Archives: Lantern Festival

Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version

Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version  –by Jinny Batterson

Lantern Festival Lion

Happy (Western) New Year!  As global cultures mingle more often, more of us Americans of all backgrounds are getting exposure to holidays and calendars celebrated elsewhere.  For the past three years, a traveling exhibit of lighted silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter, a little earlier than the period of “Chinese New Year,” which typically occurs in late January or early February and includes a lantern festival on its final day.

Lantern Festival Dragon

Yesterday I braved colder than normal temperatures to see this year’s display at a local outdoor amphitheater that otherwise would be shuttered for the season. This year’s North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival was bigger and better than ever, its signature lake-surface dragon periodically spouting water rather than fire into the frigid air.  Weather had diminished last night’s crowds somewhat, but not the enthusiasm of those who braved the elements, sometimes fortified with spiked hot chocolate or coffee. Most of the twenty-five major complexes of lights had placards describing them in both English and Chinese. 

“Lantern festival” in China is an old celebration, thought to have originated almost two thousand years ago, celebrated at the first new moon of the lunar new year, the final day of the two-week Chinese Spring Festival celebration.  According to legend, a leading Chinese deity, the Jade Emperor, was angry with villagers for killing a crane, one of his favorite birds. He planned to send down fire to destroy the village, but the villagers, warned by the emperor’s daughter, hung red lanterns around their houses, set off firecrackers, and lit bonfires in the streets, tricking the emperor into thinking the village was already on fire and thus saving the village. Ever since, in towns and villages throughout China, people parade with lanterns on the evening of  Lantern Festival.  If you have a chance to see the North Carolina version, please wear plenty of layers, and prepare to revel in winter light.   

Lantern Festival in Yangshuo, 2009

Lantern Festival in Yangshuo, 2009    —by Jinny Batterson

Lantern Festival marks the end of the formal Spring Festival holiday. It occurs on the night of the full moon, two weeks after Chinese New Year (Spring Festival).  In 2009, for me it came near the end of a travel-filled interval spent in various parts of Sichuan, Chongqing, and Guangxi.  Lantern Festival in Yangshuo would be my last hurrah before retracing my steps to return to my teaching post in Sichuan for second semester.

Yangshuo, Guangxi is a “backpackers’ paradise,” a formerly smallish town along the Li River south of Guilin that has over the past couple of decades gotten a huge influx of tourism.  The town sits among lovely karst formations that have started to attract serious rock climbers. Having benefited (or suffered, depending on your perspective) from successive sets of outdoor-oriented expatriates who came, saw, loved, and settled in it, Yangshuo has a much more international flavor than most Chinese towns its size. While wandering its streets one afternoon, I even saw and heard at a distance a dark-skinned American man, a most unusual sight in any Chinese town I’d been in before.

My husband Jim and I spent the night of Lantern Festival in Yangshuo, at the West Street Hotel, a wooden structure with balconies overlooking the main tourist street. The previous spring, Jim and a hiking companion had lodged there briefly and found it adequate and reasonably priced.  It was sort of a “Trapp Family Lodge with Chinese Characteristics.” Our room came with a Western-style bathtub, with exposed pipes running to it from the solar hot water heater on the roof. Yangshuo, in addition to its rock climbing appeal, is also the site of several backpackers’ hostels and a center for area hiking and bicycling. It is the southern terminus of most Li River cruises. Cruise passengers may opt to stay overnight and get a “Western” breakfast at one of the local restaurants catering to tourists, but most board busses for a same-day return to Guilin. Any foreign visitors, however long our stays, got to run a gauntlet of souvenir hawkers and local craft shops. We could view a staged demonstration of the early stages of silk production. We could attend concerts or dramas. Nearly everywhere, there was an abundance of English signage.

As dusk fell on Lantern Festival Day, the streets filled with revelers, the sky once again filled with fireworks. Nearly every building had decorated lanterns hanging from its eaves. Some were plain spheres of red paper. Others were decorated with riddles, or crafted into animal shapes. We watched from our balcony as two small “wishing lanterns” rose amid the fireworks displays. They were not attached to anything, and were dwarfed by the other displays as they drifted skyward.

Later in the school year, a student would present us with such a lantern as a gift, so we got to see one close up.  Our gift lantern was collapsible, with thin metal rings at the top and the bottom. Each ring had several slots where straight pieces of metal or wood could be inserted to form something like a lampshade. The exterior was made of shiny red paper, which covered the sides and the top. The bottom ring was open, with a smaller ring at its center, into which the wisher would insert a stubby paraffin candle. To use a wishing lantern, one first made a silent wish, then lit the candle and held the lantern up to the sky.  After a little while, the air inside the lamp would heat and draw the lantern upward.

During our Spring Festival travels, we’d seen other wish lanterns here and there. The greatest concentrations, though, came closest to the evening of Lantern Festival. I’ve heard that use of the lanterns has lately been discouraged because of fire danger and the dangers to structures and livestock—no one can ever be sure where a lantern will come down, or whether its candle will have burned out by the time it does.

Had I lit a wishing lantern in Yangshuo, I’d have wished for a peaceful end of life for my mother-in-law, who was in her late 90’s and suffering from a variety of illnesses and ailments. Earlier in the holiday, my brother-in-law had emailed us that she was suffering from pneumonia and had again been hospitalized near their New England home. Perhaps some benign spirit heard my wish anyway—she died peacefully a couple of weeks later.