When you think about Chinese symbols, the Chinese lantern is probably one of the first things that spring to mind. But why is the Chinese lantern so present and popular in China? Not a single Chinese festival happens without lanterns nowadays. How did that come to be? Let’s explore the history of Chinese lantern to learn why and let’s learn how to make our own!
As you may know, tomorrow is the Chinese Lantern Festival in Philadelphia. Lantern festivals are popular in a lot of places in the world now, but the Chinese Lantern Festival in Philadelphia is particularly well known. It’s a huge event in which Chinese people and western people gather to celebrate the Chinese culture. If you’re lucky enough to go there, then you’ll see various types of Chinese lanterns created by Chinese artisans. You can also bring your own! Don’t have one? Not to worry, you’re going to learn to make a Chinese lantern today! So, you’ll be able to bring that one!
Let’s start with a bit of history to learn where the Chinese lantern comes from and when its origin. This is the very first step to the process of making your own Chinese lantern.
History of the Chinese Lantern
Chinese Lanterns are a big part of the Chinese culture. The famous Chinese lanterns were invented under the Han dynasty (206 B.C-220 A.D) and were used as lights, in the first place. As Emperor Liu Zhuang was Buddhist, monks started to light lanterns to show their respect to Buddha on the fifteenth day of the Chinese lunar calendar.
After this day, Liu Zhuang and the following Emperors of the Han dynasty forced their citizens to light lanterns too and to hang them on their doors during the fifteenth day of the year. At first, they were forced to do so, but people quickly started to think that lanterns brought their owners a peaceful and prosperous life because of the heat they produced.
Under the Song dynasty (960-1279), lantern owners started to hide riddles in the Chinese lanterns to play little games together. Families hung very colorful lanterns on their doorstep and hid riddles inside of them. The riddles came from poems, well-known expressions, the Chinese language or from Chinese culture and legends. People passing by could guess the riddles. If someone had the right answer then they could win a prize.
When is the Chinese lantern festival?
Since the Hans, every fifteenth day of the lunar calendar, the Chinese have celebrated the Chinese Lantern Festival by hanging up lanterns with hidden riddles. The Chinese Lantern Festival is one of the most anticipated events by the Chinese each year as it’s a great time for families to gather, prepare and do many typical lantern festival activities together.
The background is set, you now know everything about the Chinese lantern invention and the Chinese lantern festival history.
Types of Chinese lanterns
It’s time to spot the different kinds of lanterns, so you can choose the shape and color you prefer when you’ll make yours.
If you go to Philadelphia or to China during the Chinese lantern Festival, you’ll see plenty of lanterns hung up. You’ll quickly see that modern Chinese lanterns now come in plenty of different shapes. However, the most traditional type of lantern is definitely a red Chinese lantern. Why red? The red color symbolizes prosperity for Chinese people, so red lanterns were and still are seen as a kind of lucky charms.
The traditional Palace lantern
A Palace lantern’s original shape is oval. The frame of the lantern is made of thin wood and then covered with the smoothest silk or even glass sometimes. Candles are placed inside the structure. Golden dragons and phoenixes are often depicted on the silk. Nowadays, these majestic lanterns are made by expert craftsmen and can be found in Chinese Palaces.
The gauze lantern
Gauze lanterns are less expensive as they are made with cheaper materials such as bamboo for the structure and gauze that covers the whole structure. Contrary to the traditional Palace lanterns, the gauze lanterns are colorful and come in many different shapes. Red is, of course, the most common color for these lanterns.
The shadow paper lanterns
The shadow paper lantern is one of the oldest types of paper lanterns created by the Chinese. A shadow paper lantern looks like the red palace lanterns but it’s covered by two layers, instead of just one. Pictures are drawn on the first layer, and the second layer is left blank. When the lantern is lit, the heat makes a paper wheel inside the lantern rotate and the picture appears on the second layer. Magic!
Modern Chinese lanterns
Today, a few lanterns are still handmade by craftsmen but most of the lanterns you’ll come across are printed on, thanks to modern technology. The advantage is that you can now find lanterns in all the shapes you want. A famous war hero, the Chinese zodiac animals, or even a lantern with Nincha’s shape would be doable!
Guess the Chinese lantern riddles
After learning about the various types of lanterns, let’s move to the second step of what makes a good homemade lantern, the riddles you hide in them!
Ever since the Song, Chinese people love lantern riddles. The Lantern Festival may be the main time for lantern riddles but it’s still a ways away, so let me share some riddles with you now to put in your lantern to trick your friends!
These following riddles are character riddles. You’ll need to guess the Chinese character the riddle is talking about. Post your answers in the comments below!
一人一张口，口下长只手 yīrén yī zhāngkǒu, kǒu xià zhǎng zhī shǒu One person has one mouth, under which there is a hand.
What Chinese character is the riddle about?
摘掉穷帽子，摘掉穷根子 zhāi diào qióng màozi, zhāi diào qióng gēnzi Take off the torn hat, get rid of the root of poverty.
Which Chinese character corresponds to this description?
春节第一日 chūnjié dì yī rì The first day of the Spring Festival
This one is an easy Chinese character, can you guess?
How to make a Chinese lantern
The first Chinese lantern tutorial is by Lia Griffith
Not feeling confident with the glue gun? Not to worry, we have another tutorial to make a Chinese paper lantern for you! This tutorial is also easier to make with children. All you need is sheets of A4 paper and scissors.
Chinese lanterns have become very popular and representative of China all over the world. We hope this post about the history of the Chinese lanterns helped you see more clearly where Chinese lanterns come from, what meaning Chinese lanterns hold and why they’re so popular across the world.
Be sure to share your lantern pictures with us! We can’t wait to see the beautiful Chinese lanterns you’ve made!
Answers to the lantern riddles: 1. 拿 ná to catch 2. bā eight 3. 夫 fū husband
The Nincha Team