Lanterns have been part of Chinese culture for centuries and play an important part in many celebrations, including the Moon Festival. Monks carried torches at night in the hope of spotting ethereal figures of the Buddha and his disciples. Soon, commoners began to adopt lanterns, using frames of bamboo, redwood or wire that are draped in oiled paper, gauze or silk.
Today, lanterns are largely unchanged in design, though they come with patterns of landscapes, heroes of centuries past, and divinities. The Chinese red lanterns have grown in popularity and come to be instantly associated with Chinese culture.
The Lantern Festival, too, has gained prominence in Chinese culture, with thousands of people crowding the streets to carry lanterns in the night. They also string hundreds of lanterns together and use it as a decorative piece outside their homes. Lanterns used for the Lantern festival are elaborate, with intricate patterns and riddles painted all over them. These riddles are a source of amusement for children on the night of this festival.
The lanterns symbolise the people letting go of their past selves and moving on to new ones. Most lanterns are red in colour as the colour symbolises prosperity and great happiness in the Chinese culture. Some Chinese communities, such as those in Taiwan and Thailand, light Sky Lanterns – lanterns with a closed paper shell that floats up into the sky on the heated air from the lantern’s candle – and release them into the sky in great numbers.
Another good time of the year to view spectacular Chinese lanterns is during the Moon Festival when lanterns are used to adorn gardens. Many big cities in China have displays of large lanterns for everyone to enjoy.
In ancient times, there were three main types of lanterns that were defined by their styles.
These lanterns were famous for their expert craftsmanship and courtly features, used, as they were, only used in palaces. Fine wood went into the making of these lanterns, which were then covered in smooth silk or spotless glass. Colourful patterns (usually dragons or phoenixes) adorned the silk or glass, giving the lanterns a grand look.
These lanterns were made of less expensive bamboo, over which gauze was draped. Inside the lanterns, candles were wedged firmly and then lit to cast the glow of the flame over a considerable distance.
Over a thousand years ago, these lanterns were in use mostly for entertainment. A two-layered lantern bearing paper-cut pictures on the inner layer, the shadow-picture lantern was a unique invention by the Chinese. When lit, the heat triggered a paper wheel inside the lantern to rotate, so that the pictures appeared on the outer cover.
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