All of the Lights
29 May 2017
Taiwan’s lanterns are far more than ancient decorative lamps. They’re a rich portal into the country’s history and culture.
For 364 days of the year, life for Pingxi district’s 5,000 inhabitants in Taiwan’s northern hinterland is pretty uneventful. But come the first full moon of the Chinese New Year, together with tens of thousands of visitors, they descend on the region’s tiny heritage villages of Shifen and Pingxi to paint the skies red as part of the country’s annual Sky Lantern Festival.
Pingxi’s high altitude, elevated humidity levels and sparse population, combined with 200 days of rainfall annually, yield a unique geology that certifies it as the only region in Taiwan where sky lanterns can be safely released en masse. But before these glowing balloons evolved into popular cultural and religious objects, they served a more strategic purpose.
The region’s isolated villages were frequently raided by bandits, forcing locals to retreat into the mountains, where they waited for fire balloons sent up by village watchmen to signal a safe return. Despite not being introduced to Taiwan until the 19th century, sky lanterns’ history dates to the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280AD), when Chinese statesman Zhuge Liang employed them to communicate great amounts of sensitive military data.
With the lanterns’ wartime function obsolete, they now carry the hopes of ordinary people across the sky – whether it’s blessings for a good harvest, students praying for straight grade As or some divine intervention to clinch that job promotion. And whilst Pingxi’s red skies honour the lanterns’ more traditional roots, the country’s major annual lantern festival (a strictly terra firma event) bridges the past with the present, with 2017 bringing every imaginable shape and size of lantern to a giant 50-hectare stage – the biggest in the festival’s 30-year history.
This year’s week-long sensory carnival had its homecoming in the agricultural county of Yunlin, where 2.5 million-strong crowds attended, drawing the curtain on the Lunar New Year celebrations. Its giant, illuminated, electromechanical sculptures were the creative collaboration of professional lantern-makers as well as amateurs that included schoolchildren, shopkeepers, local community groups and even prisoners serving time.
Whether the art of lantern-making has a future in Taiwan’s ever-shifting modernisation remains to be seen. But if the 2,000-year-old history of these ancient lamps tells us anything, it’s that their many adaptations have stood the test of time, and in 2017 they continue to be as culturally relevant as ever.
Words / Images: Sarah Freeman
1. Master of Melodies
Shoe designer-turned-painter Zhuang Shou Quan has been decorating lanterns at Lukang’s EVJ Lantern Art Studio for the past decade. Inspired by the landscape on his doorstep, he likens the art form to making music, which “slows down the mind”. The skilled penman practises five different types of calligraphy, which he lovingly inscribes onto the cloth canvas, taking about an hour to complete each lantern.
2. Flower Power
The inventor of Pingxi’s miniature lanterns, 88-year old Lin Huang started her business making these floral-patterned creations as a form of therapy when her husband died 35 years ago. Her story is an inspiring one. Born into a desperately poor family and fostered at the age of six, Lin Huang worked as a child slave before taking on any job that would pay the bills, from raising hogs to coal mining. Huang’s hands never stop working – armed with a sewing machine and a pair of scissors, she clothed seven children, and the ever-resourceful lady continues to make all her mini-lanterns with fabric off-cuts donated by relatives.
3. A Family Affair
Arguably the country’s most revered lantern-making family, the late Master Wu’s shoes are big ones to fill. But if anyone can honour his legacy and keep this traditional folk art alive, it’s his youngest son Yi-De Wu, who now heads the family business with the help of his two brothers. A talented painter and teacher in his own right, Wu has crafted bespoke lanterns for the Taiwanese government as well as Japan’s prime minister. His proudest moment is “never having to advertise Wu Tun-hou’s lantern shop since opening”.
1. Not Just Hot Air
These kerosene-drenched prayer papers are propelled by hot air to about 500 metres, where they dance across Yunlin’s treetops and hilly terrain. It’s said that the higher the lantern floats, the more likely your wishes will come true. After around five to 10 minutes in the air, the lanterns fall to Earth, where they are collected by villagers or special hiking groups, incentivised by local authorities who offer cash or small gifts in reward for recycling the debris.
2. Right on Track
As well as being the cinematic setting for countless television adverts and the film Dust In The Wind by the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, Shifen Old Street doubles as a railway track. Built in 1918 during Taiwan’s coal boom years and now operating as a tourist train, the 13km-long narrow gauge follows a scenic route through the Keelung river valley, lumbering through Shifen every 15 minutes and keeping lantern sellers on their toes.
3. Letters to the Gods
Eager visitors use calligraphy brushes dipped in black ink to scribble their hopes and wishes on the US$4 plastic lanterns before releasing them into the sky to be blessed by divine forces. More than just floating eye candy, each lantern colour symbolises a specific auspicious meaning, such as success, represented by green, yellow for wealth, red for health and orange for love.
1. Home Is Where the Art Is
Hosted in Yunlin for the first time in 28 years, 2017 marks the festival’s homecoming. The festival pays homage to the region’s unique natural ecology, folk culture and green technology with exhibitions themed around friendliness to the Earth, indigenous Yunlin and cultural diversity.
2. Poultry in Motion
Zodiac signs from Chinese astrology are central to the narrative of Taiwan’s major lantern festivals with the rooster returning as 2017’s zodiac animal. Yunlin’s aptly named festival Ji Ming Yun Yang translates as the crowning of a rooster – said to represent the region’s hardworking residents, who get up as soon as the rooster crows to start a new day of work.
3. The Bizarre and the Beautiful
Beyond the visual theatrics, these surreal musical LED-powered lanterns, which are crafted into every imaginable icon – from superheroes to supersized dragonflies – play their own theme music for about three minutes.