The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is the epitome of lantern festival celebrations in Taiwan. It has been named by Fodor’s as one of the 14 Festivals To Attend Before You Die, called “the second biggest New Year’s Eve celebration in the world” by the Discovery Channel, and is one of CNN’s 52 Things To Do. Historically, sky lanterns were released as a signal telling those hiding in the mountains from ransacking marauders that it was now safe to return to their villages. The practice originated from the traditions of settlers who came to Pingxi from the Minnan (southern) region of China during the Qing Dynasty. At the end of the 20th century, as people began to value and respect local cultural traditions, the practice of releasing sky lanterns was turned into an annual celebratory event for the lantern festival, held on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar. Incorporating local history, religion, and culture, the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is a classic example of a regional festival that developed and spread into a nation-wide celebration.
Believed to be a predecessor of hot air balloons, sky lanterns, also known as Kongming lanterns, were invented by Zhuge Liang (181 – 234), a chancellor during the Three Kingdoms period, whose courtesy name was Kongming. The lanterns were initially used to convey military messages. There are various speculations as to how sky lanterns became a tradition in Pingxi. In 1821, settlers from China arrived in the Pingxi district and began building villages in the surrounding area. During the Qing Dynasty, these remote villages were difficult for the provincial government to control and protect, leaving them vulnerable to brigands. To protect themselves, villagers sometimes packed up and hid in the mountains after the winter solstice when the final harvest was complete (the season when bandits, driven by hunger, were most likely to attack), leaving only able-bodied men to defend their village. After the worst of the winter passed, the men in the village would release lanterns to signify safe passage for the villagers return. This practice eventually evolved into the Sky Lantern Festival of today. In another telling of the origins of the festival, some believe that sky lanterns started out as prayer lanterns released at the beginning of spring planting each year. Since women at the time often wished for more children to add to the number of hands working on the family farm, they would release sky lanterns with invocations for smooth childbearing and plentiful harvests. As the number visitors at the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival has grown in recent years, the festival has gained as much recognition as the renowned Yanshui Beehive Rocket Festival in Southern Taiwan. The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival has been named “the second biggest New Year’s Eve celebration in the world” by the Discovery Channel and listed in 52 Things To Do by CNN. In fact, even Fodor’s, the world's largest publisher of English language travel and tourism information, has listed the festival as one of the 14 Festivals To Attend Before You Die. In 2008, the festival was recognized as a municipal folk custom event by New Taipei City and nominated to be included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
1Festival Event Schedule
The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is a three-day event; each day includes three sessions (eight lantern releases each) held at three different venues. Apart from these sessions, visitors can also release their own lanterns at designated locations and times. The opening session is always held at Jingtong Elementary School and the second at Pingxi Junior High School. The final—and generally most crowded—event is held at Shifen Sky Lantern Square. Thousands of free sky lanterns are provided by the sponsoring organizations during each session for visitors who wish to participate in the lantern release. The first two venues generally feature lanterns with fun and creative designs. The highlight of the festival is the release of the huge main lantern on the day of the Sky Lantern Festival (the 15th of the first month of the lunar calendar) at Shifen Sky Lantern Square.
The framework of the lanterns is built using makino bamboo (guìzhú), whose name is also a pun for “prosperity (fùguì)” in Chinese. Lantern exteriors are made of rice paper with added hemp fiber—a combination that results in a particularly durable material. Traditionally, lanterns have four or five sides, upon each of which can be written a wish or invocation. The lanterns are made entirely of rice paper, bamboo, and wire, enabling them to be recycled after the festival.
3Making Sky Lanterns
Sky lanterns are very easy to make. First, bamboo is split lengthwise into strips and formed into a semi-circular frame. A triangular wire piece is fixed onto the bottom to hold the joss paper that will be used as fuel. Then the exterior is covered with four to five layers of rice paper pasted over the frame. Finally, joss paper is dipped in a mixture of peanut oil and kerosene, and then hooked into the wire. The sky lanterns are ready to fly.
4Releasing the Lanterns
It is important to follow these steps when releasing sky lanterns:
1. Check the lantern for any external damage; the lantern cannot fly if the heated air leaks out.
2. Write your wish on the lantern.
3. Take a piece of oil-soaked joss paper and hook it to the wire piece at the bottom of the lantern.
4. Gently pull open the lantern so that all four upper corners are fully open and level; someone should also hold the lantern in position at the bottom to be sure enough heated air enters the lantern to push it upwards.
Light the joss paper and wait until hot air fills and expands the lantern before releasing it.
The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is held every year on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar. The festival lasts approximately one week, with multiple locations for releasing sky lanterns approved by the New Taipei City government. Restrictions on release times and other relevant regulations are posted at the locations.