One of the most beautiful types of decoration in China is the paper lantern. These unique lights have a long history and are used on many different occasions as both charming décor and functional lighting. Paper lanterns come in lots of shapes, sizes and colors and are part of the decorating traditions in many Asian countries. In China, there is even a Lantern Festival during which paper lanterns are carried and displayed in homes and on the street.
Traditional Chinese paper lanterns are made from rice paper molded around a collapsible bamboo or metal frame. Since the purpose of the lanterns is decorative illumination, they generally come in a variety of bright colors and sometimes feature designs or puzzles. Candles are used to light traditional lanterns, but in modern times, electric bulbs have been introduced, as well.
Though many sizes and shapes of lanterns exist, there are five broad classifications of Chinese lanterns. The smallest class, called “Baby’s Bottom”, are tiny lanterns sometimes used as Christmas lights. “Rolling Paper” lanterns are long and cylindrical and are often displayed in bars and restaurants. The next class are called “Tomato Lights” because they look like big tomatoes. These are the quintessential round Chinese lanterns, made of red paper. The fourth type are oblong, geometrically shaped lanterns called “Crystal Magic,” and the final class are huge lanterns known as “Buddha’s Gastronomy.” These massive lanterns come in all types of shapes and are usually seen at lantern festivals or shows.
The Chinese Lantern Festival takes place on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, usually in January or February. Not to be confused with Mid-Autumn Festival, which also sometimes features lanterns, the traditional Lantern Festival officially ends the Chinese New Year. The first full moon of the lunar year rises on this evening, so it is tradition to mimic the brilliance of the moon by carrying brightly colored lanterns. Often on this night, people will solve the puzzles featured on the lanterns and eat glutinous rice ball snacks.
Carrying a paper lantern can be tricky but it is worthwhile to see the beautiful glowing paper bob along as you walk. First, you must unfold the collapsed lantern, making sure that all parts of the paper are popped out so that the lantern is in full form. Connected to the frame on the inside, there is a small receptacle where a tea light candle is placed. The candle is carefully lit, making sure not to ignite the lantern paper in the process. The carrier holds the lantern with a long wooden stick, allowing it to sway and bob, suspended in the air.
These beautiful lanterns are sold in small shops and stores around the time of the Lantern Festival and during Mid-Autumn festival. They are very cheap to buy and make a wonderful, illuminating night-time activity.