Making Chinese Lanterns


This is a reprinted article from our China Eye magazine. Brian Morgan surveys the making of the familiar Chinese Lanterns particularly at the Lantern Festival.

This article records some of the problems the author faced when asked to supply Chinese lanterns for the 2003 Mid Autumn Festival and how he managed to resolve them in time for the 2004 Mid Autumn Festival.

When preparing for the 2003 Mid Autumn Festival, Leeds Chinese community was asked by the city council to supply Chinese lanterns for the main ceremony in the City Hall. So we had to search for a lantern maker.

One woman came forward and spoke to us at length in Mandarin and finally admitted to us that she could not help as she had no supplies of suitable materials, especially bamboo.

So a period of hasty innovation and learning followed and we assembled a 'sweat-shop' of volunteers, especially from the students at the universities. After practice at splitting bamboo and trying to bend it with a spirit lamp, we persevered and finally produced a small range of lanterns, which looked somewhat Chinese, but they still fell short of our expectations. However the council officials were well satisfied with what we had achieved and they asked us to run a teaching workshop for children to produce more lanterns. This went very well and we were very happy with the results unfortunately it was very difficult to get the children to part with their creations! So we were faced with making more lanterns ourselves.

We then had the problem of being able to illuminate them without breaching Health and Safety Executive regulations and so we designed a metal cage for simple nightlights and this worked rather well.

To deviate a little, I feel I must describe what happened on the night of the ceremony. Due to a breakdown in communication, there was some initial difficulty in finding enough children to carry the lanterns-we thought this had been arranged by the city council-and they thought that we had done it! Thankfully with a few pleas to proud parents and grandparents in the waiting audience, we were able to gather enough children from the audience and then appoint two 'lantern leaders'.

We managed in the crowded foyer to light and hand out the lanterns to two columns of children, hoping that they would follow their 'lantern-mothers', walk down the aisle and cross over at the front before going off stage at the rear. But there were two factors we could not control. First, because of the confusion, we were running late, and secondly, the Lion Dancers were to follow the children in the next act. These dancers were very impatient to make a grand and noisy entrance.

The children started walking in columns into the hall but the Lion dancers, with their loud drums followed them immediately. The children were startled and frightened and more concerned with looking at the cause of the noise rather than moving forward in an orderly fashion. Consequently some tripped over each other and dropped their lanterns and chaos reigned for a few moments. So the lanterns were not really up to scratch and nor was the event organisation!

To return to lantern construction. As I was about to go to China for a few months, the Chinese community asked me to find out exactly how they are made in China.

When I was teaching in Xi'an, I mentioned this to my kind host, Dr Han Zhen Tong, the manager of the military hospital, who then introduced me to an army officer friend who was the head man of an important lantern-making village in the area, the village of San Jiao.

The lantern makers here were very kind and over the course of a few days, taught me several kinds of construction. First we went into an isolated cottage where we were greeted by a friendly Pekinese dog and a grandmother who was very keen for us to know her age. After the usual hospitality, I was shown how to make a basic type of lantern from bamboo, silk and paper. I bought quite a lot of kits; all ready for assembly from the kindly lantern maker and his wife. The family showed me a few of their techniques and gave me some useful tips.

The next workshop we visited in the village was on a full production scale. Because their lanterns were large, they were made in the new fashion, from spot-welded wire instead of bamboo. This maker was internationally known. He had recently returned with his work force from Korea and then from Los Angeles where he had been commissioned to make enormous waterborne lanterns in the shape of dragons and lotus leaves. They were 70-100 metres across and they looked more like ships floating in the bays. Gradually the cause of some of our problems in Leeds became clearer; the bamboo which is to be used must be thick-walled and about two inches in diameter with nodes spaced about 18 inches apart. It was clear that our ordinary garden canes were not going to be of much use unless we could modify the construction and the bending. In addition we could not find cloth material sufficiently elastic to allows us to make the traditional round lanterns easily and we did not want the very time consuming process of sewing up all the sections to fit around the contours. This would be difficult and it would be costly to obtain silk in the sizes required. It would also be difficult to get consistent green wood in suitable dimensions for the collars.

We had to innovate and try to find new ways of solving the problems. We found that the garden bamboo could be used if it was first split, pre-soaked and then bent by immersion in boiling water rather than by flame. Silk could be replaced quite cheaply by taffeta or lining material. The collars could be made by laminated veneer or by wet-bending very thin plywood. The decorations could be applied as paper cuts or painted on as calligraphy. Gold wrapping paper supplied a suitable finish for the collars. Tapered candles and wire counterpoises were close copies of what I had seen in San Jiao.

With the problems resolved we could now accept requests for lantern making workshops. This led to them being incorporated together with the closely allied skill of kite-making into the 2004 'Life in Leeds' event at the Royal Armouries, where we had five workshop days.

At the Leeds Mid-Autumn Festival, I led a lantern making workshop for 13 children from Bramley primary school. Their lanterns were finished in time for their procession-the final event of the celebrations-in front of the Chinese Ambassador, the deputy head of Hangzhou city and the leader of Leeds city council.

See also :

The Lantern Festival

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 : an extract from SACU's magazine China Eye 4, Page 6, December 2004

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.