Lantern Festival (元宵節) marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. It falls on the 15th day of the Chinese lunar calendar’s first month. During Lantern Festival, Taiwanese municipalities hold displays of intricate lanterns. The festival dates back over 2000 years, initially the lanterns were rudimentary, likely crafted from bamboo with a simple covering. During the Song Dynasty the lanterns became elaborate and colorful, often portraying scenes from folk tales. Now they are usually made from a metal frame encased in fabric. The designs can be stunning, depicting scenes from Chinese history or mythology, along with the obligatory gaudy Hello Kitty lanterns, or similar nonsense. [What would a Chinese festival be without camp?] The pièce de résistance, the center of the display, and the largest lantern on the festival grounds, is the depiction of the coming year’s Chinese zodiac animal. The lanterns draw large crowds every year.
What I really like though are the sky lanterns (天燈). These are small lanterns made of lightweight paper, oblong in shape, with an opening at one end. Below the opening is suspended some type of fuel, usually ghost money, that can be burned, providing hot air that allows the lantern to rise into the sky, similar to a hot air balloon. People write their hopes, dreams and wishes on a lantern and release it. The lantern carries those messages to heaven. Lantern Festival has several origin legends. One holds that it was a time to worship Taiyi (太乙), the ancient Chinese God of Heaven, believed to control people’s destiny. I’m conjecturing here, but it makes sense that during a festival associated with Taiyi, people would want to send messages about their destinies heavenwards for his consideration. Whatever its origins, the sight of an evening sky full of lanterns—each holding someone’s aspirations—is poetic, ethereal and beautiful. In Taiwan, the best place to see sky lanterns and perhaps fly one is Pingxi (平溪) in New Taipei City.
I have only ever released a sky lantern once. As with most things I do in Taiwan,… it didn’t go to plan.
A good friend took me camping with his family in Miaoli (苗栗) during Lantern Festival. We were part of a large group traveling together. The group had arranged various activities for the children [and the retarded foreigner in their midst]. These activities included the normal things you would expect on a Taiwanese camping trip; loud karaoke on one giant generator-driven TV screen, movies on another TV screen, Mandopop blaring on several stereos, and of course lots of hotpot. As a Canadian, I don’t feel the necessity to overwhelm nature with noise and boiled meat, but they had also planned to release some sky lanterns. Though Pingxi is the place to go, sky lanterns are flown all around Taiwan during Lantern Festival. I was excited.
As the evening wore on, they pulled out the lanterns and invited me to write my hopes for the future on one. Despite feeling a bit awkward, I really opened up and laid myself bare. I poured my soul out, all my aspirations, my deepest and most dearly held yearnings were written on that lantern. I don’t remember everything I wrote, but I know I asked heaven to bring me my soulmate, true love, someone to share the joys and pains of my life. I got some light mocking, as this is not a Chinese style wish, but it was my ambition.
When I had finished, I took the lantern, placed some ghost money in the holder, and lit it. I watched mesmerized as the lantern slowly floated upwards carrying my deepest desires for the future. The lantern rose gently for about thirty feet, where a gust of wind took it and swept it into a tree. The lantern promptly exploded into a ball of flames, crinkled up, pitched, rolled and tumbled to the ground with the slow fiery grace of the Hindenburg. After dousing the blazing wreckage of my dreams, my friend sauntered by, casually threw an arm over my shoulder and said, “Oh well, maybe next year,” and strolled off to help his children with their lanterns. I was devastated. I stood looking down on the smoldering hulk of my lantern for a long time. I felt like Charlie Brown standing under the kite-eating tree. Sigh. Slowly I turned away and plodded back to my tent.
These Chinese folk customs are all very quaint—until they explode into a pile of flaming debris at your feet. I did not find love that year.