People of different cultures have different ways to pray. In Pingsi, every year during the Lantern Festival, people have their wishes written on sky lanterns, and release them to the skies.
Letting sky lanterns rise is a significant ritual in celebrating the Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th day after the Lunar New Year. Thousands of sky lanterns were launched in Pingsi, New Taipei City since the first Sky Lantern Festival was held in 1999. The event usually draws huge crowds of tourists and media that in the year 2000, New Taipei City Government produced an 18.9-meter tall sky lantern which made it to the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest sky lantern in the world.
This year, the Lantern Festival had the presence of sky lanterns from Japan and Mexico on February 7th, and ones from China on February 9th. The 2009 Pingsi Sky Lantern Festival lasted 15 days with 10,000 ox-shaped hand-held sky lanterns given away free to visitors.
Being in the crowd of visitors in the evening of February 9th, I felt the excitement of seeing hundreds of them drift upwards. I heard cries of “Marvelous!”, or “This is so different from watching a telecast at home.”
Huang Kuo-chuan, 56, a traditional Chinese painting teacher, had brought his brush and colors to Pingsi and improvised a painting on a sky lantern. “The peonies and bamboos I drew represent wealth and safety respectively,” he said. “I want to send these wishes to the heavens.”
A sky lantern consists of a main body and a frame. The body is usually made from thin oiled paper and the frame from bamboo strips. A rag or sheets of paper money soaked in kerosene that comes with the lantern need to be attached to its bottom before ignition, so that the heat from the flame fills the lantern and causes the lantern to ascend to the sky. The sky lantern is only airborne for as long as the flame stays alight, after which the lantern floats back to the ground.
A standard lantern size is 60 centimeters diameter, 130 centimeters in height, and 360 centimeters around the skirt. This is a golden ratio for common sky lanterns, according to a lantern manufacturer’s website.
Popular folklore attributes the shape of the sky lantern to Zhuge Liang’s (諸葛亮) hat. He was Chancellor of Shu Han （蜀漢） during the Three Kingdoms （三國） period of China, and he would use the lantern as a signal air balloon during warfare. Sky lanterns are also called Kongming lanterns (孔明燈) because Zhuge Liang also went by the name Kongming.
The sky lantern was a symbol of safety. It was brought to Taiwan during the Qing Dynasty by settlers from Fujian Province. According to legend, those settlers lived in Pingsi, a township often attacked by bandits during Chinese New Year. Local residents would hide in the mountains until they saw the lanterns released by village watchmen. Their sight meant “it was alright to return home”.
Pingsi residents then developed the custom of returning home on Lantern’s Festival, and of flying sky lanterns in memory of those times.
Say a prayer
The modern sky lanterns are the carrier of people’s prayers. Before releasing them to the sky, people would write down their wishes, hopes and dreams on the lantern as a way of delivering the massages to heaven, where the deities may hear them. Lantern shop owners produce the lanterns in different colors and give each color a meaning, which indicates the commercialization of the ritual.
According to a shop owned by three sisters whose average age is 70, the orange colored sky lanterns represent wealth, the red ones mean celebrations, white ones health, and the pink ones symbolize love and friendship. Different colors fulfill the different ways to express various concerns.
Words of anticipation written on the lantern ascend to the sky, and the senders feel they are blessed during the communication process with the higher powers. This is how a sky lantern wields its magical power.
Walking around among the crowd, I discovered that wealth, health, and happiness topped their prayers’ list. Wishes for “a bull market” or “better economy” reveal concern over the recent high rates of unemployment.
I approached a group of visitors who seemed to be serious about flying a sky lantern. They looked around, discussed with each other, and consulted other visitors around them on how to fly one successfully. Their lantern did ascend to the sky until it disappeared from visual range.
“I am here with two people from a Spanish television station. They are interviewing me for a show named Spanish People around the World,” said Spanish businessman Fernando M. Gutierrez. “I am showing them what Taiwanese people like to do. We were careful on the details when we lit the lantern because this is the only one we have. It is part of the interview so we have to make it work.”
Gutierrez, 36, has lived in Taipei for 7 years. He owns a wine importing company and just recently, he started a consulting business for foreign investors.
“I think flying a sky lantern is special because it is something people can really participate in.”
He wrote his name in Chinese, and wrote down his wish for good luck and health, and released the sky lantern with Laura Sainz-Aja, the journalist who interviewed him.
Impact on locals
Pingsi was transformed from a rural backwater into a thriving township when a coal mine was discovered in 1907. The glorious days of “black gold” began and lasted for almost a century. Coal mining declined with the growth of other industries. Pingsi then became a tourist destination because of its scenery and peaceful surroundings.
The annual Pingsi Sky Lantern Festival is a successful case of marketing local culture. New Taipei City Government has devoted substantial resources on promotion in a bid to shape it into an international fair. The event has drawn more than a hundred thousand tourists in recent years, which is an excellent opportunity to boost the local economy.
Pingsi townspeople say that the profit they make during the Lantern Festival is worth a year’s earnings. While this may be a cause for celebration for many, it also reveals the underdevelopment of other local industries.
After the festival each year, fallen sky lanterns litter trees and mountains in the area. Local residents would team up to collect them and earn additional income from this work of environmental clean-up. Pingsi’s present and future are bound with recreation and tourism.