Sky lanterns have always been a staple of Chinese culture, going back thousands of years in their history. In this article, we will look into this exciting tradition, what it symbolizes, and some facts you should know about it.
What is a sky lantern?
Also referred to as a Kǒngmíng lantern, sky lanterns are small hot air balloons with openings at the bottom, a wire base that suspends a small fire, and the rest of the design consists of paper.
They originated in East Asia – particularly China, and are usually used for play or during festivals such as Lunar New Year celebrations. The tradition of using them during celebrations spread to all the eastern and Southeast Asian cultures that interacted with the Chinese, including the Vietnamese, Thais, Koreans, Filipinos, and Japanese. They modified the tradition as it spread to their cultures.
What is a sky lantern made of?
The construction of sky lanterns is simple, consisting only of thin papers of different lengths that make up the shell, as well as a stiff wire collar that suspends the flame and helps keep the lantern’s shape. The opening at the lantern base is between 10 and 30cm wide in most cases, and the paper used to make the shell may be from 30cm to some meters wide at most.
The paper material can vary across regions. For instance, in Thailand, and China, paper shells are made from rice paper and mounted on bamboo frames. If rice paper is unavailable, they can also work with wax paper due to its translucency or silk paper, as with sky lantern festivals in Latin America.
What is the Sky Lantern festival?
Also known as the Yuan Xiao Festival, the Sky Lantern Festival is a holiday that is celebrated in Asian countries, and it is held on the 15th day of the lunar calendar’s first month. This also marks the new lunar year’s first full moon and the end of the Chinese New Year.
It is used to symbolize forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation. In preparation for the festival, people hang decorative lanterns in their homes and on their doors. The lanterns also contain riddles, and solvers of these riddles receive small gifts.
How does a sky lantern work?
To understand how sky lanterns work, the principle of hot air balloons is what you need to know. It operates on the physics principle that warm air is lighter and less dense than cool air because it has a lower mass for each unit volume.
Thanks to the suspended flame at the base of the lantern and the closed environment the paper frame creates, air at the bottom heats up and lifts, which makes the lantern rise. This continues until the candle burns out or the heat source cools, making the lantern fall gently to the ground.
Sky lantern history
It is unclear when the first sky lanterns originated, but the common view is that the Chinese experimented with developing simple hot air balloons in the 3rd Century. According to research by the historian and sinologist Joseph Needham, the Chinese army began using them as signal bearers.
After their history in the military setting, they became popular with Buddhist monks, who would light lanterns in honor of Buddha. This tradition eventually spread among children and adults – especially during festivals such as the Mid-Autumn and Lantern festivals in China and the Yi Peng Festival in Thailand.
Who invented the sky lantern?
The first simple hot air balloon invention is attributed to Zhuge Liang (181-234 AD), a military strategist and sage referred to as Kongming by his juniors as a form of reverence. According to myth, he wrote an urgent message to his allies seeking help when he was surrounded by the enemy troops of Sima Yi during the battle of Pingyang in the spring of year 231 and attached this message to a sky lantern.
This is why these lanterns are still referred to as Kongming lanterns in China today, or Kongming Deng. Another myth talks of the sky lanterns being referred to by their name because they look like the hats he wore, as represented in his paintings.
When were sky lanterns invented?
The common view of the sky lantern invention is that its origin is in the third Century and that Zhuge Liang was the person responsible for inventing them. He was a Chinese engineer, military strategist, politician, inventor, and writer, and his juniors referred to him respectfully by the name “Kongming.”
Why were sky lanterns invented?
According to the myths surrounding the story of Zhuge Liang, the sky lantern was invented as a form of SOS communication when he sought help from allies during his capture by enemy troops. They allowed him to receive assistance, and this story was told throughout future generations.
What are sky lanterns used for?
The use of sky lanterns has varied throughout their history. In ancient China, they were used by the military to transmit messages across enemy lines during wars to call for reinforcements.
However, as the tradition spread among civilians, the use of sky lanterns changed to being used during religious ceremonies and festivals such as weddings, funerals, and New Year festivals. These were often combined with fireworks in these cases, a tradition that continues to this day.
What does a sky lantern symbolize?
The symbolism of sky lanterns depends on their use, as they can mean different things depending on context. The most common use is on the Spring Festival Celebration, which is the day that marks the close of the Chinese New Year. The lanterns are in red and gold colors. They have motifs from nature, mythical creatures, figures, and animals, and these symbolize wealth, good fortune, and prosperity wishes during the following year.
They were also popular during New Year celebrations as they spread among civilians since everyone used them to send messages to the gods and thank them for blessings, as well as write their wishes for a better future. In Thailand, for instance, these lanterns were lit in purple colors to symbolize their dreams of going to the heavens, while green lanterns were used when someone wanted to achieve personal growth.
If the lanterns are used during weddings, they symbolize prosperity and fame to the new couple. These are usually decorated in black, green, and yellow – black symbolizes righteousness and equality, yellow is a symbol of royalty, and green is a symbol of balance and harmony.
If the lanterns are used during funerals, they are usually white. In the Buddhist tradition, white is the color of death, and lighting white sky lanterns symbolizes the person’s soul moving to the next realm.
How long do sky lanterns burn?
The fire at the base of the sky lantern does not burn for a long time. In optimal conditions (little wind, no obstacles, clear sky), the fire can burn for about 8 to 10 minutes, and the lantern can achieve heights of between 700 and 1600 feet high.
This means that the lanterns will fly about 2 to 5 miles from their launch site before their fire burns out, and then they will float back to the ground and biodegrade.
How to make sky lanterns
Color paper (you can also use wax paper or oiled rice paper) with a length of at least 4.6m (15.6 feet), plastic straw, aluminum foil, cotton, transparent tape, fuel (such as kerosene or acetone), copper wire (or any other metal wire), small container, scissors, glue, knife, and thumb pin.
Making the burner
Cut the aluminum foil into its required size, and use the small container to shape the foil. Use cotton as the burner’s wick, and add the fuel to the burner.
Making the paper shell
Roll and cut two paper pieces, making sure they are equal sizes of at least 2 feet long. Be mindful of the length; the longer these pieces are, the bigger the lantern will turn out.
After cutting them, use the glue to join them along one of the long edges to create a large piece of paper. Create a paper cylinder by gluing the short ends of the paper, ensuring the edges overlap slightly.
You will then cut out a square piece of paper that will function as the sky lantern’s top surface. This piece of paper should be large enough to cover one of the lantern’s open ends completely. Glue this square paper over the top and glue its edges to the edges of the cylinder frame.
Creating the frame
Arrange the plastic straws into a square shape and secure them in place using transparent tape. You will attach the burner to the frame by using the thumb pin to pierce four small holes in the burner, inserting the wires in these holes, and then using adhesive tape to secure the wires to the straw frame.
Assembling the frame
Ensure the paper frame and the metal-straw frame match in size, then place the paper frame upright and use adhesive tape to stick the frame to it.
Cut some small fins and stick them on the corners of the cylinder using glue to give the lantern a great look.
Sky lanterns are a beautiful part of East Asian culture, and seeing them is a sight to behold. Fortunately, they are easy to make at home as a craft project, and their use is widespread across cultures and special days.