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History of Lanterns

  As far as Tang Dynasty in the 8th century AD, there were records why lanterns (Denglong in Chinese), one type of ancient lamps, came into use. Since then, a great deal of historical data and records about Lantern Festival have emerged. For example, on Lantern Festival, Emperor Xuanzong built 20 lighthouses with tiffany at Shang Yang Palace, ranging from imperial harems to courts, to present a splendid and magnificent lantern show. In China, lamps came into existence subsequent to Qin and Han Dynasties, and paper lanterns might appear following the invention of paper in Eastern Han Dynasty.

  Chinese lanterns, made of bamboo, wood, rattan, metal, wheat straw, animal horn, ghatpot silk, and other materials produced in various regions, have integrated painting, paper-cut, artwork, embroidery, and other crafts. Among the lanterns made by ancient Chinese, palace lanterns and gauze lanterns are the most famous.。

  Historical records have mentioned the word, Lantern. According to previous studies, it first emerged in History of Southern Dynasties - Story of Emperor Wu in Liu Song, “The lanterns made of Ge-cloth are hung on the wall.” In addition, History of the Song Dynasty - Biography of Wang Deqian provided such statement, “Arrogant and ungovernable, Wang Deqian dresses, dines, and rides just like the king, and sometimes held a lantern to light his way.”

  Chinese had used lanterns prior to Tang Dynasty in the 8th century. Nevertheless, the festive lanterns displayed on Lantern Festival must be desired and expected most by people. The custom of watching lanterns on Lantern Festival stems from the early years of Han Dynasty. During Kaiyuan Reign Period in Tang Dynasty, people celebrated peace and prosperity with self-made festive lanterns giving off flashing lights which bear the implication similar to the saying, “a flower dragon betokens good luck, rich people, and powerful state”, and the custom has been prevalent thus far. In Song Dynasty, emperors would build colorful and magnificent buildings to display lanterns on each Lantern Festival, and Cai Xiang ordered each household to light seven lanterns in celebration of such festival when he served as prefecture chief in Fuzhou. Furthermore, when founding a capital at Nanjing, Zhu Yuanzhang in Ming Dynasty lit a myriad of lanterns and floated them along Qin Huai River; due to the lamp posts erected at Meridian Gate and “Lantern Market” set outside Hua Gate in Yongle Government, “Dengshikou” Street took shape in Peking.

  On each Lantern Festival during Ming Dynasty, empresses and imperial concubines would make and paint palace lanterns. Except for night illumination, lanterns were also applied to weddings and funerals. In ancient times, lanterns were widely used in palaces, governments, temples, stores, and daily life, showing strong traditional features.

  With the development of social pattern, lanterns, for lack of practical value, mainly function as ritual vessels and ornaments for folks nowadays. In addition to illumination, Chinese lanterns tend to be a symbol. As lanterns are closely connected with Chinese life, they can be seen everywhere like in temples, living rooms, etc.

  After the Republic of China era, lantern watching still exited but was on substantial decline. At present, due to large-scale lantern shows in vogue, lanterns have gradually played an important role in home decorations. However, some materials have evolved from paper and bamboo to cloth, plastic, and iron wire, and the shape and color of modern lanterns vary a lot from the traditional ones. For instance, in ancient times, the lanterns for temples are mainly yellow, and those for personal use is characterized by white ground; nowadays, all have been mixed, and the size and color of lanterns merely relies upon personal preference without certain symbolic significance.

Significances of Lanterns

  Chinese and lanterns coexist to some degree. In ancient times, the halls of each and every family were decorated with auspicious lanterns, and for merchants, lanterns would bear shop names or serve as ornaments, let alone temples. From perspective of Chinese culture, lanterns refer to luminosity and other significances.

  In the first month of the lunar year, when Sishu (old-style private school) reopened, parents would prepare one lantern for each child who brought the lantern to school. Teachers would light the lanterns up, which was called “Light Up” (Diandeng in Chinese), signifying splendid prospect. Since then, lantern carrying has evolved into the custom on Lantern Festival.

  Due to the similar pronunciation of Diandeng and Tianding (to give birth to a baby) in Chinese, lanterns were also used to pray for babies. Women with such wish would flock to temples or lantern shops (walking under sheds decorated with lanterns) to prey for Deng (lantern) or Ding (baby), and to our amaze, most families turned out to have babies. During the period of Japanese occupation, patriots presented folktales on lanterns by painting to impart knowledge to descendants, so lanterns are vested with a significance, namely to pass down the essence of Chinese culture from generation to generation.

  Lanterns are emblematic of Chinese life concept and belief. In the eyes of Chinese, the warm and gentle light in darkness is a teller recounting touching and classic stories typical of Chinese.

  Traditionally, Bride Lanterns (also called as Palace Lanterns) refer to wedding ceremony and other jubilant occasions; bamboosplit lanterns reading “Ji Dai Da Fu” and “Ji Dai Da Mu” point to funeral occasion; Umbrella-shaped Lanterns (lanterns with family name and ancestor’s position) signify large and thriving family due to the similar pronunciation of Deng and Ding in Chinese. Therefore, each household would hang Umbrella-shaped Lanterns under the roof and within the hall. At present God-Greeting Party, there are two large lanterns in front of the Gods, which carries forward the aforesaid traditional custom.

Poems about Lanterns

Watch Thoroughfare Lanterns on South Building at the Night of Lantern Festival
(Sui Dynasty) Emperor Yang of Sui

Dharmacakra hangs in the sky;
Chanting travels from the heaven.
Lanterns create a flower sea;
Fireworks form a lighted garden.
Moonlight resembles pool of ripples;
Wintersweet charms breeze of spring.
Blazing torches golden main roads;
Glazed stage generates a ring.

Night of Lantern Festival
Su Weidao

Lights and lanterns are shining;
Unlocked gate renders festivities livelong.
Dust blows after horse hoof;
Moon goes after moving throng.
Painted faces shine against moonlight,
Fair geishas present Plum Song; 
Usual curfew has been suspended;
Great haste would be wrong.

Night of Lantern Festival
Cui Ye

Night watch struck in unnecessary haste;
City gate will be open through night;
Who can sit in silence in moonlight?
Why not go after lanterns with delight?

View Lanterns on the Night of Lantern Festival
(Tang Dynasty) Lu Zhaoling

New Year greetings involve delicacies, the Lantern Festival is even better.Heavenly dome is at hand, the lanterns blaze with color.
Distant lights fall like stars, bright moon hangs above tower.
Girls talk to each other with laughter, the lovers express love under the tree.

(Song Dynasty) Ouyang Xiu

On the last Lantern Festival, fair shines at that night.
With moon above willow treetop, bosom friends chat with me at twilight.
On this year’s Lantern Festival, fair shines at this night.
In absence of my brother, tear drops blur my sight.

Two-part Allegorical Saying about Lanterns

A lantern is hung in pine forest – the outstanding one
A lantern is pasted with black paper – with no clear reason
The street is ablaze with lanterns - a bright future
A lantern is hung on the front door - bring honor to the family
A man holds a lighted lantern in the daytime – in vain
A lantern is hung on the flagpole - brilliant
The blind holds a lighted lantern – have no splendid future
One holds a lantern in the basement – do nothing underhand
A lantern is hung on the nose - clear-headed
The nephew carries a lantern to give light to his uncle - the same as before