Chinese Lanterns — History, Utilization, Tradition, Culture, and Artifact

Chinese Lantern is an ancient traditional craft that inherited for thousands of years, the art of night that illuminate in darkness.

 

Throughout history, lanterns in China include a series of styles, types, functions, and utilizations. They can fly in the sky, hang in front of doors, place indoors, float in rivers, and shine in religious places.

Chinese Lanterns
Hanging Lanterns
Lanterns in Part of Painting "Ming Xianzong Yuanxiao Xingle Tu" About Celebrations of Lantern Festival of Chenghua Emperor

Lanterns in Part of Painting "Ming Xianzong Yuanxiao Xingle Tu" About Celebrations of Lantern Festival of Chenghua Emperor (1447 — 1487) in Imperial Forbidden City, by Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — National Museum of China

 

Origin of Chinese Lanterns — Overnight Lights from the Imperial Han Palaces

 

In ancient China, bronze lamp stands had been used for lighting, mainly by royals. 

Bronze Lamp Stand of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Bronze Lamp Stand of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — Hebei Museum

Later in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), sophisticated lanterns were invented, with refined cases that can protect the flame. 

Bronze Painted Light of the Han Dynasty

Bronze Painted Light of the Han Dynasty, Burnt Smoke Gas can be Channeled Through the Neck of the Wild Goose into Its Belly ​— National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Lantern Festival on the 15th of January on the Traditional Chinese Calendar, when every family would hang creative and beautiful lanterns the whole night, also came from the Han Empire.

 

In different versions, the festival was believed under command of one of these three emperors of Han:

 

  • Liu Heng (202 BC — 157 BC), the Emperor Wen of Han set the festival to memorize the success of having defeated a rebellious scheme that was initiated by the family of Empress Lv (first queen of the Han Dynasty, the wife of Emperor Liu Bang), to honor peace and loyalty.

 

  • Liu Che (156 BC — 87 BC), the Emperor Wu of Han started to worship Tai Yi Shen, the most honorable and paramount deity of heaven during that period, on the first full moon in the new year. In this grand ceremony, countless lanterns would be lightened from dusk till the next morning, to illuminate the imperial palace. 

  • Liu Zhuang (28 — 75), the Emperor Ming of Han commanded to hang and light lanterns in his imperial palace and temples, to worship Buddhas and promote Buddhism.

 

Either way, the Chinese lantern and the Lantern Festival all originated in the imperial Han palaces and soon spread to the civilian world. 

Hanging Lanterns in the Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace of Ming and Qing Dynasties

Hanging Lanterns in the Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace of Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912), Photo From Official Website of Palace Museum. 

 

Types and Utilizations of Lanterns in China 

 

Some common utilizations of lanterns throughout history include illuminating, praying, celebrating, showing status, guiding spirits, decorating, and entertaining. 

 

Palace Lantern or Gong Deng - Luxurious Fine Arts

 

Palace Lanterns or Gong Deng are exquisite and artistic lighting used in imperial palaces.  

 

They originated in the palaces of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) and thrived in the Sui Dynasty when Emperor Yang of Sui (569 — 618) ascended to the throne and commanded to illuminate his new capital city using countless beautiful Palace Lanterns.  

 

Palace Lanterns mainly use exquisitely carved or painted fine wood as the skeleton, inlay with silk or glass that decorate with auspicious paintings or patterns, and usually are shaped with anise, hexagonal, or four corners. 

Exquisite Palace Lantern of the Qing Dynasty

Exquisite Palace Lantern of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Gauze Lantern or Sha Deng - Simple and Creative Lighting

 

Gauze Lanterns of Sha Deng are simpler lamps used by scholars and civilians since the Han Dynasty. 

 

They usually use bamboo as skeletons, and gauze to cover the lighting candle. 

 

On the plain gauze, people can decorate it as they wish, usually paintings and poems with auspicious meanings or to express their ambitions and talents.

Gauze Lantern, Including Lamp Stand and Gauze Cover Next By, in Painting "Dongpo Hanye Fushu Tu" by Artist Qiu Ying.

Gauze Lantern, Including Lamp Stand and Gauze Cover Next By, in Painting "Dongpo Hanye Fushu Tu" by Artist Qiu Ying (about 1497 — 1552).

Status Lantern or Zixing Deng - To Show Identity and Social Status

 

In history, lanterns that write with the master's family name, political position, or titles, had been used as an important way to show one's identity and status. 

 

These status lanterns are usually used by big families with power, respected reputation, and wealth, which could be hung in front of every gate of their mansions or held by their family members and servants. 

Sky Lantern or Kongming Lantern - Military and Pray

 

Sky Lantern is invented by Zhuge Kongming (181 — 234) to send messages and mislead enemies when he and his army were enclosed in a war. 

 

Later, Sky Lanterns or Kongming Lanterns have been widely used to pray, when people write their wishes on the surface of the lanterns and send them to the sky on some important festivals or memorable occasions. 

 

However, the Sky Lantern is a type of paper-made hot air balloon, which is easy to cause fire today, especially in big cities or places with gas or electricity. Therefore, today, it is banned in many places.

Sky Lantern or Kongming Lantern

Water Lantern or He Deng - To Guide Spirits and To Pray

 

Water Lantern or He Deng, usually lotus-shaped, is the type of light placed on rivers or lakes on festivals or important occasions, to offer deities living in rivers and lakes, to worship ancestors, or to pray for good luck. 

 

In religions and folklores, Water Lantern can relieve lost ghosts from hopeless wandering and lead them to the place they belong. Hence, placing Water Lanterns has been an important activity in the Ghost Festival.

Lotus Shaped Water Lanterns Floating on River

Lotus Shaped Water Lanterns Floating on River, Photo by Dongmaiying.

Stone Lantern - Buddhism Offering and Votive Lamp

 

Originated no later than the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Stone Lanterns or Shi Deng were placed outside of Buddhist temples as offerings or votive lamps that could bring people light in the darkness. 

 

Gradually, Stone Lanterns were also used in gardens and mausoleums, and spread to other Asian countries. 

Stone Lantern of the Tang Dynasty

Stone Lantern of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Beilin Museum of Xi'an (Photo by Fubudong Xuduobai)

Revolving Lantern or Trotting Horse Lamp - To Entertain

 

Revolving Lantern or Trotting Horse Lamp, in Chinese Zou Ma Deng, is a traditional toy with auspicious meanings.

 

Inside a Revolving Lantern, there are a wheel and axle that pastes with paper-cut figures. After the candle is lightened up, the rising heat would generate airflow, which can make the wheel and its attached paper figures revolve. 

 

The earliest paper-cut figures were brave generals riding horses, hence the name Trotting Horse Lamp. Later, more types of images with auspicious meanings have been used in making Revolving Lanterns, which are usually used on happy occasions and festivals.

Revolving Lantern or Trotting Horse Lamp

Revolving Lantern or Trotting Horse Lamp with Paper Cut Figures

Festival Lantern or Hua Deng - To Celebrate

 

Festival Lanterns or Hua Deng are mainly used to decorate and celebrate important festivals, which include the richest styles. 

 

Since Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) when people started to celebrate the Lantern Festival, more types of lanterns have been invented by creative people throughout history. 

 

Unlike other types, Festival Lanterns or Hua Deng can use all types of materials available and be made in any size and shape as people capable.

 

Mythical Creatures, Mythological World, Deities and Legends, Zodiac Animals, Historical Figures, Landmarks, Auspicious Flowers, Architectural Buildings, Arts and Crafts, almost shapes of everything could be made into beautiful lanterns.

Chinese Phoenix or Fenghuang Shaped Festival Lanterns or Hua Deng

Chinese Phoenix or Fenghuang Shaped Festival Lanterns, Photo by Buxiang Xiedaimade Tuwan.

 

Chinese Lanterns in Traditional Festivals and Ceremonies - Color, Shape, and Patterns.

 

Chinese New Year or Chun Jie

 

Red round lanterns, sometimes decorated with auspicious characters and patterns, are the most popular Chinese New Year Lanterns. 

 

An important rule of Chinese new year lanterns is to hang them in pairs (always even numbers), and on the south side of the house if possible. 

Read More About Traditions and Celebrations of Chinese New Year or Chun Jie

Red Hanging Lanterns to Celebrate Chinese New Year

Hanging Lanterns to Celebrate Chinese New Year

Lantern Festival or Shang Yuan Jie

 

Lantern Festival or Shang Yuan Jie on the 15th of January in the Traditional Chinese Calendar, is the time to light all types of beautiful Festival Lanterns or Hua Deng. 

Different Types of Beautiful Lanterns of the Song Dynasty, in Painting "Guandeng Tu" By Artist Li Song

Different Types of Beautiful Lanterns of the Song Dynasty, in Painting "Guandeng Tu" By Artist Li Song (about 1166 — 1243) — Taipei Palace Museum

Ghost Festival or Zhong Yuan Jie

 

Ghost Festival is the time for worshiping and memorizing the deceased, hence placing the Water Lanterns or Lotus Lanterns. 

 

Mid Autumn Festival or Zhong Qiu Jie

 

Mid Autumn or Zhong Qiu is the festival of reunion with family and to celebrate the harvest, and the common lantern shapes include fruits, grains, and animals.

 

The most popular one is the Jade Rabbit Lantern, modeled on the Jade Rabbit living on the moon in ancient mythology and folklore.  

Jade Rabbit and Moon Paper Lantern for Mid Autumn Festival

Jade Rabbit and Moon Paper Lantern for Mid Autumn Festival

Colors and Patterns of Chinese Lanterns on Wedding and Funeral

 

According to the different types and functions of Chinese lanterns throughout history, the uses of colors and patterns are not quite strict. 

 

Besides festivals, there are two ceremonies that have regulated the use of colors and patterns regarding lanterns, which are still followed by most Chinese people. 

 

Wedding

 

Red has been the most popular color for Traditional Chinese Wedding, and the auspicious character, the "Double Happiness" is the commonest symbol for wedding lanterns. 

 

Besides lucky characters, other patterns that represent love are also popular, such as dragon and phoenix, Chinese knots, and flowers. 

 

Click to Read More About Chinese Symbols for Love and Traditional Love Tokens

Palace Lantern of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), Decorated with Double Happiness Characters and Dragon and Phoenix Patterns

Palace Lantern of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), Decorated with Double Happiness Characters and Dragon and Phoenix Patterns — Palace Museum

Funeral

 

White paper and bamboo batten made lanterns are the common lightings for Traditional Chinese Funerals, usually have memorial and condolence characters, sometimes the deceased family names and status, written on them.

 

They are usually plain and simple, mainly used to illuminate and lead the path for the departed one's spirit, and to inform nearby people of their sad encounter. 

 

On the First Day of School

 

In ancient China, students would bring a lantern on their first day of school every year, to let their teachers lighten it on. 

 

This ceremony named Kai Deng symbolizes using knowledge and virtue to illuminate one's bright future.

Copper and Glass Made Palace Lantern of the Qing Dynasty

Copper and Glass Made Palace Lantern of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum

 

Materials, Art, and Crafts Skills in Making Chinese Lanterns

 

Staring from the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), the earliest Chinese lanterns were made of bronze, stone, then pottery. 

 

Bamboo, wood, rattan, and metal are common materials used to make skeletons, while paper, fabric, glass, and plastic are common for covering and decorating the surfaces.

 

Crafts skills to make artistic traditional Chinese Lanterns, including wood carving, lacquer carving, painting, calligraphy, paper cutting, embroidery, etc. 

Hanging Palace Lanterns, Hand Hold Lantern, Hanging and Hand Hold Gauze Lanterns in Painting "Zhengyue Hanye Tanmei" By Court Artist Chen Mei

Hanging Palace Lanterns, Hand Hold Lantern, Hanging and Hand Hold Gauze Lanterns in Painting "Zhengyue Hanye Tanmei" By Court Artist Chen Mei of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum

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