There is arguably no more prominent symbol of China in the Western imagination than the red lantern. They can be seen dotting the streets and storefronts of Chinatowns around the world and illuminating our fictive minds, from Zhang Yimou’s film Raise The Red Lantern to James Bond’s Skyfall. Since the very first paper lanterns were made over two thousand years ago, they’ve become ubiquitous in Chinese culture and much of the East Asian world—particularly in times of celebration, as they represent family gathering and a brighter future. Here, we take a look at the roots and symbolism of this iconic source of light and hope.
A History of Light
In the beginning, lanterns were more practical than magical. The Chinese first began making lanterns during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) to protect a candle’s flame, and constructed them by stretching silk or paper over a frame of bamboo, wood, or wheat-straw. Soon after, lanterns were decorated with Chinese characters and used as wayfinding guides for shops—a romantic, candlelit take on the modern billboard.
Hundreds of years later, lanterns became as symbolic as they were functional. During the Tang Dynasty, parents would prepare a lantern for their children’s first day of school and have the teacher light it, a ritual blessing for a promising year. And on the last night of Chinese New Year, when the streets were alight with the red glow of lanterns during the Lantern Festival, young people were chaperoned in public in hopes of finding love, with matchmakers busy pairing couples—a tradition still practiced in some Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia.
Today, lanterns are ubiquitous in ceremonies, celebrations and even contemporary decor. An overwhelming amount—nearly 80-percent of China’s lanterns—are made in the small village of Tuntou in Hebei, in the foothills of the Dabie Mountains not far from Beijing. Nearly 80 million red lanterns are made here each year using techniques passed down through generations, earning this literal beacon of a town the nickname, “The Lantern Capital of China.”
Folklore & Symbolism
As lanterns became more widespread, their meaning and mythology also grew. Buddhist monks began using lanterns to celebrate the Buddha as a ritual of worship. A tradition was born as believers began carrying paper lanterns to the then-capital city of Luoyang as an act of devotion. Another legend tells the story of a divine bird who was accidentally shot down and killed by a hunter. Furious, a god sent his subordinates to set fire to all people on the final day of the Chinese New Year. The emperor’s daughter, unable to bear this thought, sent a secret message to warn the people of the coming danger. The people resolved to hang red lanterns and set off firecrackers to simulate a huge fire so that the god would no longer need to set a fire himself. This plan worked and the real fire was prevented, sparking an annual tradition of hanging red lanterns to represent both the fire and the luck and prosperity achieved by the fortuitous plan.
Beyond the traditional red, yellow lanterns are also thought to bring good fortune. Reserved for the emperor during imperial times, today yellow lanterns are often lit by students to bring academic luck. And white lanterns, which signify death, are most often seen during periods of mourning. For this reason, a white wedding dress would have been unheard of in ancient China; the more red the merrier!
Celebrating at Home
Paper lanterns have evolved over the millenia and now come in many shapes and sizes. In celebration of the Lunar New Year, here’s a primer on just a few types of lanterns—there are hundreds!—plus some ideas for how you can join in and celebrate from your home this season.
Round hanging lanterns (灯笼 dēng lóng) are the most common during the Lunar New Year, as they’re meant to emulate the full moon. Throughout China, they often hang in public spaces and are even used as street lights. During Chinese New Year, they’re used to scare away Nian, a beast that comes out of its hiding place at the beginning of each Lunar New Year to feed on people and animals. Sky lanterns (孔明灯 kǒngmíng dēng) are made to be released into the sky; they float away like tiny hot-air balloons. During special occasions, like the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Lantern Festival, you’ll see huge flocks of them joining the stars in the sky to mesmerizing effect. The magical floating lanterns (水灯 shuǐ dēng), seen during big events like the Dragon Boat Festival, come in shapes like lotus flowers and hearts. Gliding through the water, their reflections appear as though they’re flying through the night sky.
For those hoping to hang lanterns this year, try New York City-based Pearl River Mart. They sell a wide range of lanterns perfect for hanging in your home on the final night of Chinese New Year, traditionally on the 15th night of the first lunar month (February 26th this year). This night is referred to as the Lantern Festival, or yuánxiāo jié, when everyone indulges in the gooey pleasures of yuánxiāo—a soft, pillowy glutinous rice flour ball, often filled with black sesame or sweet peanuts. On this day, children will also cāi dēng mí (solve riddles) from a poem or phrase written on the lantern. If you prefer your festivities more scripted, grab a calligraphy brush and some black ink (check your local Chinatown or Pearl River Mart) and try your hand at one of these popular phrases used to send good tidings for the new year. We wish you all of them and more.
Happy New Year: 新年快乐 (xīnnián kuàilè)
Good health: 身体健康 (shēntǐ jiànkāng)
Happiness and prosperity: 恭喜发财 (gōngxǐ fācái)
Ben Hannon Hubley works on PRIOR’s content & editorial team, after having worked at the New York Times in Beijing. He received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, and speaks Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish. He is based in New York.