East wind in the night, like flowers the lanterns light; so bright, a rain of stars falling from the sky.
Every year on the Lantern Festival, all kinds of lanterns are put up everywhere in China. In his poem “The New Year Is Here,” Liu Yong famously wrote, “The fifteenth day of Chinese New Year is the best festival, in every household comes a lantern carnival.” The phrase brings us back to the peaceful times during the reign of Emperor Ren of the Song Dynasty (1022-1063) when the happy, wealthy people welcomed the Lantern Festival.
Artistic lantern, or Huadeng, is also called Dengcai or Denglong (lantern in Mandarin). Its structure is typically made of bamboo, wood or metal and laminated with paper or silk. Common lanterns are patterned with auspicious symbols and decorated with Chinese paper-cut, calligraphy, art, or poems. A lantern is an object used for everyday life and folk rituals, as much as an artwork that pleases people’s eyes. As its name suggests, Lantern Festival is a traditional festival of lanterns in China. The most usual activities would be lantern fairs, sometimes coupled with lantern riddle contests, which were referred to as the “lantern-fun on the 15th day of the first month of Lunar Calendar.” These shiny little objects add color and light to the joyous festival, carrying people’s prayers for a happy life.
Legend has it that the first person to put up lanterns on the Lantern Festival was Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty (156-87 AD), who used to keep the lanterns lit all night to worship the Taiyi God. As of Tang Dynasty (618-907), the sacred lanterns became playful props in dance shows and acrobatics at night. The first lantern fair was held on the Lantern Festival in Song Dynasty (960-1279), and became popular in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), all the way to modern days. The modern-day festive lanterns are no longer about worshipping god, though, nor do they retain their special connotations as a folk custom. Instead, they exist as entertaining decorations. For Chinese people, however, they are always a metaphor for reunion and yearning.
For thousands of years, lanterns light up the night and people’s heart. They embody people’s best wishes as well as their hard work and technologies as the brainchild of human wisdom and know-how.
The night befalls and the first lanterns are lit in the dusk. Every single one of them awaits the one who departed, and every one of them narrates Chinese people’s longing for home and pursuit of light.