Cultural Icon: Chinese Lantern

China’s paper lanterns are more than just decorations; since 250 B.C. they have silently spoken of births, deaths, social status and approaching danger. Banned during the Cultural Revolution, today they have resumed their place as honored guests at ceremonies and festivals.

Travelers visiting the three gateways of China – Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong are often dazzled by the neon lights and breathtaking skylines. But carefully peel away the glass-and-chrome veneer and peer through the intricate lacework of butong (back alleys) and you discover another image synonymous with China: a cheery, red, round paper lantern (deng). With its sacred vermilion hue and the lucky roundness of yuan (money), the Chinese lantern symbolizes long life and is the supreme totem of good luck.

In China, close proximity to one’s neighbors is common, and privacy is more a mindset than a physical reality. The placement and color of lanterns serve as a vital communication link in these tremendously communal residential areas. Since red connotes vitality and energy at its maximal state, a red lantern placed outside a doorway tells of a birth or marriage. A blue lantern, representing declining energy or sickness, indicates there is illness in the household. And white signifies energy eliminated or death, so a white sash draped across the top of the doorway, flanked by two white lanterns announces that the family is in mourning.

Originating as far back as 250 B.C., the basic Chinese lantern has remained unchanged in design. The sleeve or frame that surrounds the candle is assembled from pliable bamboo, sturdy redwood or inexpensive wire. To soften the harsh light of a naked flame, thin or oiled paper, gauze or silk fabric covers the frame to create the familiar flattering, soft glow. In contrast to the simplicity of the standard spherical lantern, the zouma deng lantern was designed during the Song dynasty (960-1279), an era of innovation that included developments in type printing, gunpowder and paper currency. The zouma deng resembles a miniature pavilion with upturned eaves. An inner wire shaft is fitted with paper vanes, and the heat current generated from the flame rotates the shaft, setting a paper cutout in a charming merry-go-round motion, hence the name, since zouma deng means "roundabout."

The lantern played an important role in military communications, particularly when the Chinese Empire was divided into three warring kingdoms. The Chinese historical tome Romance of the Three Kingdoms, set during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), describes how the respected military strategist and war hero Zhu Geliang (nicknamed Kung Ming) made a special lantern designed to alert neighboring ally cities of approaching attack or danger. A strip of kerosene-soused cloth or paper was ignited and placed inside a lamp that floated upward into the night sky.

In times of peace, the size and elevation of lanterns hanging outside houses indicated social status in Chinese society. To show off wealth, Chinese elite hung lanterns made of silk velvet from second-floor balconies and verandas. Lanterns belonging to the rich were so large that they required several men with poles to hang them. At the onset of the Cultural Revolution, the lantern, like many other Chinese arts, was deemed ourgeois and banned for the next decade. But visitors today will find a voluminous array of once-forbidden lanterns located above Chairman Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen Tower.

The end of the Cultural Revolution was a time of great celebration, and numerous yearly festivals, once strictly forbidden, returned with a vengeance. Nationwide, lanterns were quickly constructed and carefully hand-painted in anticipation of Shang Yuan (Lantern Festival). Scheduled on the first moon of the new lunar year, the Lantern Festival originated in 230 B.C. when the people of ancient China gathered en masse and raised lanterns in an attempt to catch a glimpse of deceased loved ones thought to be passing over on their journey to the heavens.

Today, the festival is also known as the second New Year. The event has grown to colossal proportions; some cities bring in expert lantern-makers to create elaborate sets, many straight out of classic Chinese literature or built with unconventional media such as glass bottles, china cups and even sugar. The festivities now include "lantern riddles", clever brainteasers that are written onto the lantern screen. Even the rural countryside gets in on the act with the lighting of hundreds of homespun lanterns strung across streets and on homes, appearing from afar like tiny galaxies. The use of the venerable lantern in modern Chinese society has been whittled down to appearances at ceremonial events such as weddings and celebrations honoring the arrival of a newborn. And yet neither the invention of electricity nor the reins of the Cultural Revolution could extinguish the enduring symbols of good fortune and prosperity as it flickers and survives another century of Chinese history.

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