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The History of Chinese Lanterns

Puja Lalwani Feb 25, 2020
Though Chinese lanterns are obvious in their beauty, the history of Chinese lanterns is vivid yet mysterious.
The history of Chinese lanterns dates back to 250 BCE, where these were developed to improve the regular source of light that was an open flame.
While an open flame provided a stark contrast between objects, the lanterns that were created to shelter the flame not only reduced the intensity of the open flame, but also worked to create an ambiance with the soft glow that they gave.
It became a medium of art expression, where different artists came up with unique designs and patterns, and communicated various subjects through these beautiful paper lanterns.
The history of Chinese lanterns is not limited only to this detail. It is an object that has a whole lot of events and connotations associated with it, details of which have been provided here.

The History

An authentic and traditional Chinese lantern is bright red, round in shape. Some of these are embellished with golden tassels, and the artwork on them is usually golden in color.
Of course, the variety that is now available is immense, but all of these symbolized good luck, wealth, and a long life.

Spiritual Connotation

One of the prime theories is that they were invented as an alternative to the fire torches used by Buddhist monks, the night before the Chinese new year. This they carried with the hope of discovering the divine figure of the Buddha and his Bodhisattvas.
Another spiritual connotation of the lanterns is that they were a method of warding off the evil and inviting good luck. Till date it serves as a symbol of a long, healthy life.

Functional Uses

Yet another detail tells us that these lamps were also used to provide light for travelers, due to the absence of light during the night, thus making it a form of street lighting which experts tell us, other countries soon began to emulate.

Status Symbol

Placing a lantern outside a house was more of a status symbol, but soon surpassed status for function, and became a common ornamental accessory in all houses.
As a status symbol, the size of the lamps, and the materials used to made them, spoke of the vast amount of wealth owned by a family. The lamps were made of silk and velvet fabrics, and hung from higher floors because of their size, which can be verified by the fact that several people were usually required to put up these lamps.

Means of Communication

These lanterns also served as a means of communication among neighbors, when placed on the doorway, and the colors of the lanterns symbolized the events that the family was going through.
∘ Red: Red is a symbol of exuberance and zeal at its peak. As such, when placed outside a house, it symbolizes an event of marriage, or a birth in the family.
 Blue: A blue lantern is an indicator of poor health in the house, and also symbolizes the degenerating health of a family member.
∘ White: As is the case with many cultures across the world, white represents death in the Chinese culture too. When two white lanterns are placed on top of a doorway, along with a white sash that is placed across them, it symbolizes that a family is in mourning.
Not only were Chinese lanterns used to communicate the good and bad events in a family, they also served as a means of communication among the military. The famous war hero, Zhu Geliang has been credited with the invention of a special lantern, used to alert neighboring cities of potential attack or danger.
This he did by dousing a strip of cloth in kerosene, and placing it within a lamp that was light enough to float into the sky at night. This was developed during a war period during the Han dynasty, i.e. from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D.

Festive Celebrations

The famous Chinese Lantern Festival has been celebrated since 230 B.C. During this festival, several large groups of people gathered and raised their lanterns, with the hope of being able to spot some of their deceased loved ones, on their voyage towards heaven.
This festival always took place on the first moon of the fifteenth day of the new lunar year or first lunar month, and were thus symbolic of the celebration of the Chinese New Year. This festival is also known as the Yuan Xiao festival.
On this day, single women were allowed to go out alone, in an attempt to be seen by or meet eligible bachelors. Till date, the lanterns are used as matchmakers between singles during the festival.
Chinese lanterns is that it was banned during the cultural revolution in China (1966 - 1976). With the death of Mao Zedong, the then leader of the country, the Cultural Revolution ended, and these lanterns were brought back to life with such fervor, that made them more popular than ever.
Even in today's times, Chinese lanterns have not lost their charm, and in fact, continue to dazzle huge crowds with their beauty and variety. The various patterns, designs, and colors not only make them a symbol of the rich culture and folk art of China, but also a beautiful accessory that is found in the homes of many lovers of these lanterns.
It is even used to light up weddings and other important ceremonies. With the effect it has on the masses today, it can safely be said that the history of Chinese lanterns has only strengthened the love for this object of Chinese art, and that these lanterns still serve to preserve the rich history, culture and traditions of the country.