Lanterns are among the important signatures of Chinese culture. Not only are they popular in China, but they are also famous worldwide. You may have come across a Chinese lantern or different varieties at a Chinese celebration or hanging outside the entrance of a Chinese restaurant. Red lanterns especially, are among the things you picture when you think about China.
But have you ever wondered, where did these beautifully designed lights originate from? What do they symbolize or mean in Chinese culture? In this post, we will be taking an in-depth look at Chinese lanterns, from their history to the different varieties and their meaning. We will also look at how these lanterns are used by the Chinese.
What Is A Chinese Lantern Called?
Chinese lanterns go by different names depending on the purpose or design of the lantern. With the invention of paper, Chinese paper lanterns are the most common variety, compared to the earlier versions that were made of silk or animal hide.
In Chinese paper, lanterns are referred to as Dēnglóng. They mainly consist of thin bright colored paper covering a candle with a wooden and metal framework in its simplest form. There are however different shapes, sizes, and construction methods. The complicated versions include collapsible frames of hoops covered with tougher paper.
The Chinese name for paper lanterns may also vary based on the design and purpose of the lantern. There are three major categories including sky lanterns, water lanterns, and hanging lanterns. Sky lanterns, for example, are referred to as tiāndēng in Pinyin, or Kǒngmíng lanterns.
Chinese Lanterns History.
Today the popularity of Chinese lanterns has grown and spread worldwide making it one of the signature symbols of the country. These light sources however come from humble beginnings. The first of its kind was said to be invented during the Eastern Han dynasty. Their original purpose was to be a light source. The people from that period would use a frame made of either wood, bamboo, or wheat straw to surround the candle and cover it with either light silk or paper. This was to prevent the candle from being blown out by the wind. The silk or paper also had some decorative characters on it, which allowed the lanterns to also be used as means of advertising for shopkeepers and business owners.
Later on, the Buddhists adopted the use of lanterns in their ritual worship. It became a ritual for people to light lanterns on the fifteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar, as a way of worshipping the Buddha. They would then carry the lanterns to the palace in Luoyang. By the Tang dynasty, this ritual became a full-fledged festival. The Chinese begun celebrating the fifteenth day as the Lantern Festival, marking the end of Chinese New Year celebrations. The festival involved lighting and viewing candles, eating Tang Yuan (Sticky rice balls), and celebrating with family. While the original lantern designs were simple, over the years they have been developed into more elaborate designs including the animal zodiac signs.
Types Of Chinese Lanterns.
As we’ve already mentioned there are three major traditional types of Chinese lanterns that come in different shapes and sizes. They are as follows:
These are the most common types of Chinese lanterns that can be seen all around the world apart from in China. They are often used as decorations for both private and public places. You’re likely to spot them in Chinese homes, restaurants, businesses, and even being used as street lights. These types of lanterns are also commonly used during most Chinese festivals as they are believed to bring good luck. Red Chinese lanterns are especially used during the Lunar New Year because they are believed to scare away evil and the Nian monster.
These types of lanterns can also be referred to as water lanterns often released in large groups over water bodies like rivers, lakes, and oceans. The lanterns come in various shapes and sizes, the most featured design being the lotus design. You’ll spot these lanterns during large-scale Chinese celebrations like the Dragon boat festival as well as the Lantern Festival. As they float over water, an optical illusion is created from the light reflecting on the water. It, therefore, appears as if the lanterns are floating both in the sky and on water. It can be quite a beautiful spectacle to witness.
They are also referred to as Sky lanterns and operate like mini hot air balloons. They are made of paper with an opening at the top and a small fire suspended. The lanterns are propelled by the hot air rising from the flame enabling them to float away into the sky. You can only spot these lanterns at night, especially during the Mid-Autumn festival when they are released in large numbers for a mesmerizing effect.
What Do Chinese Lanterns Symbolize?
Everything in Chinese culture carries a meaning or acts as a symbol. Chinese lanterns are no exceptions to the rule. Each variety has its meaning based on color, shape, and size. The following are the major symbolic meanings of different Chinese lanterns:
Red is a highly auspicious color in Chinese culture. It is seen to symbolize prosperity, good luck, fame, and wealth. That is why the color is incorporated in many Chinese celebrations including weddings, business events, birthdays, and major festivals. It is also why most Chinese lanterns are red. In China, many business owners hang red lanterns outside their shops or restaurants to symbolize a prosperous business. Chinese homes also have red lanterns hanging outside as a symbol of a thriving life. Red lanterns are especially important decorations for major festivals like the Lunar New Year and Lantern Festival. They are normally hung not just for luck but also to scare off evil, negative energy, and the Nian beast, believed to disrupt the New Year celebrations.
The color green is also highly symbolic in China. Aside from being the universal symbol of nature and growth, the Chinese also see green as a symbol of purity, harmony, good health, and prosperity. Using green lanterns is an expression of growth and the wish for peace and good health. Decorating with green lanterns during the Spring Festival shows you are inviting prosperity, abundance, and tranquility with the coming year.
Another auspicious color associated with good luck in Chinese culture is Yellow. It is also the symbol of neutrality and was associated with the Yellow emperor who is one of the five major emperors of Ancient China. Yellow lanterns are a representation of freedom from worldly and materialistic things. As a result, yellow lanterns are most used by Buddhists in worship, especially during the day of the Lantern Festival. During this time, even young people who are students release yellow lanterns because yellow is also believed by the Chinese to be a symbol of good luck in school.
Shapes and Sizes.
Aside from color the shape and size of the lanterns also carry a particular meaning. While today’s lanterns are made into elaborate designs, the main shapes are circular, square, or hexagonal. The circular shapes are the most common and they represent wholeness and togetherness. They are also reminiscent of the moon and are an important part of the Lantern and Mid-Autumn festivals.
The decorative art and writings on the lanterns also carry their meanings. The writings are usually an expression of an individual’s best wishes, such as good health or long life. Different artworks represent different things. The dragon represents strength, plants represent growth, flowers represent joy and happiness, and bamboo represents resilience through difficulty.
How To Use Chinese Lanterns?
In ancient China, lanterns were originally invented to be used as sources of light. That is why they were hung outside shops and homes. The writings on them were also used as a form of advertisement for the businesses. Later on, Buddhists adopted lanterns and used them in their rituals by lighting them as a sign of worshiping the Buddha. Today, lanterns are mainly used for decorations but are also incorporated into celebrations and worship, during festivals and rituals respectively.
You will find Chinese festivals today filled with giant multi-colored lanterns in different shapes of plants and animals among others. They are used to showcase important traditional Chinese animals and plants, like the dragon and lotus respectively.
Over the years Chinese lanterns have developed and moved from being a simple source of light to a symbol of pride for the country. They are hung outside buildings, homes, restaurants, and shops not just in China, but in China towns and settlements all over the world. You can view these lanterns in places like Hong Kong, Beijing, and Nanjing, which are popular cities in China known for their amazing lantern displays during national celebrations. It is a beautiful and illuminating experience you would not want to miss out on. So, ensure it is part of your itinerary on your next visit to China.