Fancy Lanterns (彩灯)

 Fancy Lanterns (彩灯)

Fancy lanterns, a special handicraft product of Chinese tradition, are widely used for decorations in the country on festivals and holidays, on wedding and other personal celebrations.

On the whole, they consist of a frame made of metal wire or bamboo strips covered with paper or thin gauze and then painted over to be attractive. There is also a kind with a collapsible redwood frame that can be taken apart and folded up when not in use; it makes a good tourist souvenir.

Many types of traditional lanterns fit with the description of “fancy”; those commonly seen include palace lanterns, lanterns with revolving figures, gauze lanterns, wall lanterns and glass silk lanterns. Those hung on the Tower of Tian'anmen are red gauze lanterns of an unusual size.

In old times they were commonly called qishifeng deng (the lantern that enrages the wind) because, coated with fish glue, it was windproof while allowing the candle light to shine through. Today, of course, electric lights have long replaced the candles.

Outstanding among various lanterns is the one with revolving figures known as zouma deng in the country. It usually looks like a pretty paper pavilion with upturned eaves and corners.

It is ringed by a number of colored figures of men and animals, or a panoramic landscape of mountains, rivers and flowers, either painted on or cut in paper, that revolve like a merry-go-round.

This kind of “roundabout” latern may be traced to the Tang and Song dynasties about 1,000 years ago. The figures or pictures stand on the circumference of a wire frame which is fastened at the centre to a vertical shaft pasted with paper vanes. Propelled by the heated air from the lit candle, the vanes turn the shaft, making the frame with the figures revolve.

Today this kind of lantern has become more elaborate and beautiful, but the basic structure remains the same. It shows that the Chinese already grasped in ancient times the principle of transforming the current of hot air into mechanical revolution.

A series of special postage stamps of various lanterns was issued by the Chinese postal authorities in 1981. Totalling six pieces, they show fancy lanterns of different show fancy lanterns of different shapes: a flower basket, a colored ball, dragon-and-phoenix, a treasure box, grass-and-flower, and a peony plant. The designers, employing techniques of traditional “fine brushwork”, gave the pictures dazzling brilliance and brought them to life.

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