China’s paper lanterns have been a part of Chinese culture since 250 B.C. Their significance lies beyond just decoration, as they have the ability to communicate births, deaths, social status, and forthcoming dangers. During times of peace, the size and elevation of lanterns hanging outside of the houses indicated people’s social status in society. One was able to show off wealth by having an exquisite lantern made of silk velvet hang outside of the house. In addition, the placement and color of the lanterns allow onlookers to acknowledge the current status of a household. For example, one can tell of a birth or marriage because a red lantern will be placed outside the doorway. Furthermore, a blue lantern symbolizes declining energy. Thus, one can tell that there is an illness in the family. Since the color white represents death, the family would place a white sash across the top of the doorway with two white lanterns, one on each side. This states that the household is in mourning.
In addition to the status of a household, lanterns also play an important role in military communication. This was an essential aspect of communication during the time when the Chinese Empire was divided into three warring kingdoms. The military strategist and war hero Zhu Geliang (nicknamed Kung Ming) made a special lantern that enabled all the neighboring allies to recognize the presence of attack or danger. He made this with a strip of kerosene-soused cloth or paper that was ignited and placed into a lamp that floated upward into the sky.
During the Cultural Revolution, lanterns, which were classified as traditional Chinese art, were banned and forbidden to be used. This lasted for the next decade. Thus, the end of the Cultural Revolution signified a period of joy with great celebrations and exciting festivals. The celebration of ShangYuan, the Lantern Festival, resumed. In ancient times, the people of China would raise their lanterns in hopes of catching a glimpse of the deceased ancestors who were believed to pass over on their journey to heaven. Today, this nationwide celebration that falls on the 15th of the first month of the Chinese New Year is also known as the second New Year. Elaborate sets of lanterns are made by expert makers, and usually, there is competition for the most beautiful lantern.
Today, the basic Chinese lantern remains unchanged in its design. The candle that is placed in the center of the lantern is surrounded by a sleeve or a frame that is assembled from pliable bamboo, sturdy redwood, or inexpensive wire. In order to prevent a huge flame, thin or oiled paper and gauze or silk fabric covers the flame and enables a soft glow.
Despite the invention of electricity and the terror of the Cultural Revolution that resulted in the collapse of all traditional Chinese art, the Chinese lantern is an enduring symbol of long life and serves as the supreme representation of good luck.