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Inheritance Dilemmas

1. Diminishment of Traditional Artists

  Traditional lanterns have to be manually made. At present, many processes have been improved, so the preparations are faster. In addition, many lanterns are imported from Chinese Mainland, for labors in Taiwan are short and costs here are much higher. 40 years ago, my father made a pair of large lanterns of 8 feet, equal to the height from the ground to the ceiling. Those lanterns took about two months, and that is impossible nowadays, for my father has been 93 years old. Being too old, he sleeps a lot just like a baby and only inscribes a word or gives a few touches on the spur of the moment. However, my father has been dull in eyesight, so it is difficult for him to wholly make lanterns by himself.

2. Lack of Inheritor

  The biggest headache relating to lantern making is the lack of patient apprentices willing to learn from scratch. My father has not asked me and my four brothers to inherit his skills. When I was young, lanterns could only be sold in local place or used in folk activities. In my memory, that was an era of scarce materials and cheap products, and most wanted to enter a higher school. Children with talent for school learning should study hard, and my second brother was the best learner in my family, but I was not very good at it. There would be more opportunities for children with good academic performance, because working outsides meant earning more money than lantern making and such tiring work would be avoided. In fact, I could learn a lot from my father, but I did not want to work until midnight. Lantern making meant unbalanced life and great pressure. At the request of lantern guests, you had to hurry the work, although the work might last until midnight. The lanterns in temples were not necessarily replaced on annual basis, but we had to make lanterns as long as anybody placed an order, and these lanterns might also be replaced every three months. However, one type of lanterns, called as Luzhu Lanterns, must be replaced annually, once the owners of Luzhu Lanterns placed orders, you had to rush the work to promptly deliver the lanterns. Nowadays, the lanterns in some temples are covered with plastic covers. Only those covers need to be replaced, if the lanterns are not damaged by smoke. Moreover, lanterns in temples with larger scale and more visits are replaced more frequently, and the more modern the temples are, the less they are willing to remain lanterns but prefer modern light equipment.

3. Manual Work Replaced by Machines

  Lantern is a kind of art integrating bamboo weaving, colored drawing, art designing, mounting, and calligraphy. Since ancient times, skills for lantern making have been only passed to sons instead of any outsiders. With rapid social development, many lanterns are made by machines, and people only paste the outer paper. Some lanterns have been made through direct plastic injection, but plastic products are too stiff and devoid of aesthetic feeling.

  Traditional Quanzhou Lanterns can only be woven with bamboo splits. In case of machine production, the bamboo may be easily broken, and the lanterns cannot be shaped. As for Fuzhou Lanterns, machine cannot be applied to cut bamboo splits, make bamboo tenons, thread needles, or modify bamboo joints either, and its sole function is to split bamboo. However, it is hard to wholly and manually complete lanterns from bamboo spitting, and it usually takes at least three days to make some large lanterns. Sometimes, in case of urgent needs, such lanterns have to be rushed around the clock. This is a problem which traditional arts are confronted with, and my children have not learnt to make lanterns. My father hopes to spot apprentices with passion for lantern making through such itinerant teaching and pass on such this craftsmanship.

4. Change of Traditional Customs

  Learning requires gift. Previously, trade was somewhat hereditary. In ancient times, skills for lantern making were only passed to sons instead of any outsiders, and people could not learn how to make lanterns from anyone except for their families. My father sold lanterns as articles of daily use rather than artworks. Lanterns were also used for worship in temples or sacrificed to Gods, and wedding and funeral also required lanterns. If we had been in an era of hereditary trade, we might have inherited his skills. In modern society, traditional arts will remain with governmental care and efforts. However, nowadays, many traditional customs have been discontinued. For example, Dragon-Phoenix Lanterns for weddings and Ma Lanterns for funerals have been barely used, so do many traditional temples. Of course, lanterns are discontinued for safety, but traditional lanterns will be on the wane without demands.

5. Development of the Times

  If the government cares, folk arts can be inherited. However, if some people advocate environmental protection, traditional customs will change, and relatively some traditional craftsmanship will disappear. For example, in a worship occasion, joss paper and incenses will be burned, but according to advocates, joss paper and incense sticks will contaminate air and cause cancer. At present, I do not want to see others burn joss paper or light incense sticks. However, when I was young, joss paper and incenses were made of natural materials and would send off natural and pleasing scent, and such smoky atmosphere made me enjoy worship. In the 7th month of the lunar calendar, such scent lingered in Lukang Township for a whole month. Current joss paper and incense sticks contain plenty of chemical compositions, which is detrimental to human body. After the massive advocacy to forbid joss paper and incense sticks for ages, the scene of coiling incense smoke in the 7th month of the lunar calendar has disappeared in Lukang.

  With the change of the times, many folk arts will disappear. People have to beware of fire when using lanterns, so fluorescent tubes have come into use at the right moment. When lanterns are not required in daily life, corresponding skills will disappear inevitably. As I have mentioned, my father used to sell lanterns as articles of daily use, but market demand was limited. As lanterns become artworks, income to keep the pot boiling depends upon whether there are people purchasing lanterns. Under such circumstance, the biggest problem is how to pass down the craftsmanship.

6. Conclusion

  Lanterns manifest the painstaking efforts of artists. At present, lanterns are not articles of daily use any more but artworks, because they have lost original functions and become ornaments, as electric lamps have replaced lanterns among daily necessities. Many traditional lantern masters are as old as my father, so such craftsmanship will gradually disappear, unless the young learn with sincere desire. My father depends on lanterns to make a living, and many of his works have been gifted to foreign guests by the government. In addition, National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute has also collected his works, and his works have become real artworks. However, from the perspective of my father, lantern making is a profession for him to bring home the bacon and to raise children all his life. In accordance with Taiwanese traditional ideology, one should work until he cannot move anymore. At the age of 93, my father will inscribe a word or give a few touches on the spur of the moment in despite of poor eyesight and weak strength of his hands. I and my brothers can give him hands in his lantern business. However, the inheritance of this craftsmanship depends upon younger generation with sincere desire to learn how to make lanterns.


(The pictures are provided by Mr. Jung-jen Wu.)