The annual Yilan Water Lantern Festival is one of the biggest opening celebrations of Ghost Month in northern Taiwan. In Chinese tradition, the seventh month of the lunar calendar is known as Ghost Month. During this time, the barrier between the realms of the living and the dead opens and ghosts return to wander the earth. For more than a hundred years since the tradition’s beginnings in the Qing dynasty, families and businesses in Yilan have celebrated the Ghost Festival (Zhongyuan) through the preparation of a grand feast to welcome returning ancestors and, at its end, the use of lanterns to guide them back to the realm of the dead. The celebration in Yilan began as a cultural tradition that later developed into an official event co-organized by fourteen local associations. The festival is an expression of the unity of the various associations; it also protects the tradition of releasing water lanterns and lotus lanterns. Above all, it serves as a way to preserve the art of water lantern making—an intricate folk craft involving paper mache, traditional hand-painted designs, and the art of Chinese paper cutting. The Yilan Water Lantern Festival is a classic example of Chinese Zhongyuan Ghost Festival celebrations.
Yilan City was known as Kavalan City during the Qing Dynasty. Its tradition of releasing water lanterns to celebrate the Ghost Festival dates back over a hundred years. One of the oldest extant records to mention this practice is a poem entitled The Zhongyuan Festival of Kavalan City that dates back to 1825. The water lantern parade also has an interesting origin story. It is said that a local noodle seller who had been plagued by poor health all his life went to the City God Temple for divine help. The gods instructed him to organize a drumming group to parade and dance around the city on the day before the Zhongyuan Ghost Festival. The noodle seller did as instructed and was gifted with a miraculous recovery. As a token of his gratitude, he repeated his parade every year, each time attracting more and more people to join him. In 2000, Yilan City officially designated the event the Yilan Water Lantern Festival to commemorate this local custom. By 2007, the festival had grown to include Buddhist and Taoist organizations and added new performances to attract more tourists. The burgeoning tourism that came with the event caused Yilan to become known as the City of the Water Lanterns. In 2009, the festival was designated an intangible cultural asset by the Yilan County government.
1Yilan City God Temple
Yilan’s City God Temple serves as the venue where the purifying ritual, prayers, performances, and rice distribution take place, and is the starting point of the inspection tour. It enshrines the City God, who is believed to be the impartial judicial deity who resolves conflicts in both the realms of the living and the dead. He is also in charge of reporting the deeds of those who died so that they may be judged and their spirits transported to the underworld. Due to his significance to the spiritual world, the ritual of using water lanterns to guide spirits into this world to accept sacrificial offerings is generally performed at the City God temple.
The annual Yilan Water Lantern Festival takes place from the 28th day of the sixth month to the second day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
Day 1: The purifying ritual begins in the afternoon, where a Taoist priest sprinkles water while chanting. The City God makes his inspection tour, passing through Dongmen Night Market, Nanguan, Beiguan Market, Lujiu Market, the Yilan City Offices, and Yilan Riverside Park. At night, thousands of people light lanterns for the grand prayer ritual and the festival organizer lights up the main lotus lantern, initiating the upcoming series of events.
Day 2: The inspection tour to the old town center takes place at night, with folklore performance teams (zhèntóu) following the City God through the streets of the town. The highly anticipated releasing of the water lanterns takes place at 11:00 p.m. of the second day, when the Ghost Gate, the gateway to the realm of the dead, opens. The water lanterns, some made in the form of lotuses and others assembled like miniature houses, are released into the river to guide lost spirits to accept the sacrificial offerings.
Day 3: Performances take place at the City God Temple, Nanguan market, and Beiguan market.
Day 4: Charitable rice distribution ceremony at the City God Temple marks the end of the festival.
3Lotus Water Lanterns
The custom of releasing water lanterns originated in India. It is done for a number of purposes—as offerings to the dead, to dispel ill fortune, or to pray for blessings. It is one of the rituals observed during the Ghost Festival in Taiwan, when the lanterns guide spirits in the water to accept sacrificial offerings. Lotus water lanterns are usually made of paper on which the Pure Land Rebirth Dhāraṇī (a Sanskrit Buddhist mantra) is written. They float on the water with a Styrofoam base and a candle at the center. Besides guiding the spirits to accept offerings, these lanterns also symbolize prayers for the spirits to reincarnate.
4The Water Lanterns (shuǐdēngtóu)
The water lanterns (shuǐdēngtóu) are beautifully handcrafted using bamboo and tissue paper. The materials are cut and folded into the shape of houses, and can be anywhere from thirty to a hundred centimeters tall. They are a fusion of the folk arts of Chinese paper pasting, painting, and cutting. The water lanterns that represent the fourteen local associations of Yilan City go on a parade around the old town area and a ceremony at the Riverside Park before they are released by representatives from each association.
The Yilan Water Lantern Festival spans four days between the 28th of the sixth month to the second day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. The main event, the releasing of the water lanterns, always takes place on the night of the second day (usually the 29th of the sixth month). If, however, there is a 30th day in the sixth month of that particular lunar year (there are usually only 29 days in the sixth month), the event is postponed to that day since that is the night that the Ghost Gate opens.