Monday, March 26, 2012

The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival

If you've ever seen the movie Tangled, you know what a sky lantern is. 


Well, I can tell you from experience that the magic of sky lanterns isn't just something out of a fairy tale. Every year, the village of Pingxi marks the Chinese New Year with a several week long Sky Lantern (天燈) Festival and fills the sky with so many beautiful lanterns it would make Mandy Moore jealous. 


This year's Chinese New Year festivities started on the Lunar New Year, January 23. It is estimated that every year between 100,000 and 200,000 lanterns are released in the cute little hamlet of Pingxi over the course of the festival. However, the biggest day of festivities falls on the last day of the Chinese New Year, which this year was February 6th. On the final day of the festival, the town organizes a big concert and a mass release of 1,000 lanterns at once (it's amazing, see above video).
I wonder what the measure word is for a group of lanterns? Herd, plethora, murder?
Apparently the tradition of lantern launching in the area first began after the Han settled there. There was so much crime in the area that the settlers began using lanterns as a way of signaling to each other that they were safe. This tradition eventually evolved into a full scale yearly festival after the town;s coal mines shut down in the late 20th century and the villagers needed a new source of income. And, when you go, you definitely get the feeling that this event is the town's bread and butter. Everyone and their brother (literally) sets up booths all along the sides of the road selling everything from stinky tofu and grilled squid on a stick to Turkish chicken wraps and patterned bath robes. And, of course, there are lanterns of every size and style for sale everywhere.
Every kind of dumpling imaginable! 
This guy was selling brown sugar lollipops, spicy snails, and corn on a stick all at one very enterprising stand 
Toy lanterns and night light lanterns for sale next to a stack of  ready to launch DIY lanterns
In some ways, today's lanterns still retain some of their original meaning. The only difference is that now, instead of being a symbol of safety, they are used as more of a prayer for safety in the new year. Nowadays, it's become popular for people paint their wishes for the new year, which usually includes something about health and safety, on a lantern and then light them up and let the lanterns carry their wishes to heaven. The streets and train tracks were swarming with people painting their wishes and releasing them. Some of the lanterns were cute, some were funny, one or two were quite pretty and, in accordance with the Chinese zodiac, dragons abounded.

video
This lantern reads: "Mega Millions + Super Lotto + (something I can't make out in Chinese) = Billionaire!"

This little guy falls firmly into the cute category 
One of the more impressively painted dragons (yeah, I was a little jealous of their lantern painting skills)

Cherrica, Christine, and I painted our own lantern with my host parents, Jane and Jason.
Jane's side, she wished for health, luck, and peace in the new year.
Cherrica and I signing our side, complete with dino-dragon holding explosives. It says "Happy year of the dragon!"
Christine drew a crowd that watched eagerly to find out if a foreigner can really write in Chinese (spoiler: she can) 
Jason's side
Getting ready to launch our wishes!
There it goes!
Although the whole day was absolutely amazing, nothing can compare to the grand finale mass lantern release and concert. While we didn't get there in time to release a lantern in the first wave (there were already over 2,000 die hards lined up for the noon sign up when we arrived at 11), we were lucky enough to get a place in the third wave of lanterns (and, by default, a better of the first wave when they went off!). It was a great experience and I'm so happy I got to participate in the festivities.

Please note that, while the following pictures and the video at the beginning of this blog are pretty, they just can't do the real thing justice. My advice: If you're ever in Taiwan in early February, you just have to go see the lantern festival for yourself. It's breathtaking!
Setting off the first wave of lanterns


This is what 1,000 lanterns looks like!
Getting ready to set off our (rapidly decorated) lantern

I feel like some sort of "Goodnight Moon" reference would be appropriate here?

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