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Illuminating tradition

Lantern making is an ancient folk art that continues to shine and casts light on how the past connects with the days and nights yet to come, Yang Feiyue reports.

By Yang Feiyue | China Daily | Updated: 2024-01-30 08:02

Niu Junqi shows lanterns he created.[Photo/Xinhua/China Daily]

Brilliant origins

One of the most popular styles, which is also Zhai's favorite, is the double-layered hexagonal palace lantern that features arched spines, dragon heads, eaves, pillars and windows.

"It's full of Chinese elements, and has maintained typical models and structures for thousands of years," he says.

Yet, palace lanterns could also feature many other specific motifs for particular events. Birthday celebrations in the palace, for instance, involved lanterns that featured images of flowers and peaches to convey wishes for longevity.

Zhai considers the hexagonal shape to be the best, since it can serve as the basis for a variety of designs.

"The hexagonal lantern is double layered, but I can alter it to have four or six or even eight layers," he explains, pointing out that additional layers can be added around the core to create a more complex and intricate visual appeal.

Zhai entered the trade immediately after finishing middle school, when he took an apprenticeship at a lantern factory in Beijing in 1975, under masters who used to make lanterns for the royal family.

"One of them would usually get instructions from the (imperial court) management officials, who asked him to make certain lanterns for certain places, regardless of the costs in terms of time and materials," Zhai recalls.

"The palace lanterns were initially primarily used for decoration, with illumination as a secondary purpose, and since they were exclusively for the imperial court, they all exuded a royal grandeur," Zhai says.

It wasn't until China's final dynasty, the Qing, that the emperors began to bestow palace lanterns on officials as rewards. Gradually, they started becoming more common among commoners, and, by the end of imperial China, they had become part of most ordinary people's lives.

"For festivals, folks (in Beijing) started making (palace) lantern frames from materials like bamboo and sorghum, on which they pasted paper-cuts," Zhai says.

Production soon expanded to include other places like Shanghai, Guangzhou in Guangdong province and Hebei province.

"They've retained their general shapes as they've spread over time, but you'll notice some differences in the feel if you look closely," Zhai says.

"In the south, for instance, they tend to be more delicately and intricately carved, while in the north, and especially in Beijing, they are grander and more solemn."

However, he stresses, they must retain the essence to be classified as palace lanterns — that is, they must comprise a wooden frame with panels featuring painted scenes and traditional tassels or Chinese knots as adornment. Most importantly, they must be created using the specified production techniques, which require over 100 steps, including wood preparation, carving, assembling, gluing, painting, attaching dragon heads and hanging tassels.

Traditional lanterns still glow with vitality thanks to the dedication of generations of artisans.[Photo provided to China Daily]

In the old days, a single craftsman had to do everything from the woodwork to painting.

"Sometimes, it took several months to make a palace lantern," Zhai says.

The favored wood varieties are rosewood and sandalwood from Guangdong and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, since they have a fine, hard texture and lack pores, he says. A thin iron wire tied to both tips of a bow is used as a saw to cut delicate patterns, like dragon heads, out of the wooden boards, before further carving with a knife followed by polishing.

Craftspeople sometimes cut two or three boards with the same pattern at the same time to increase efficiency.

"That really tests your skills because a novice might do well with the top board but ruin the bottom board," he says.

"It took me three years to learn how to do the woodwork."

Palace lanterns are always built using mortise-and-tenon joints. The frame has to be well-designed to ensure it's sturdy since no nails are used.

Hollowed-out decorative patterns are carved into the completed frame. The protruding parts of the notches are called "flower teeth" and are rendered in dozens of styles with many variations.

"Most carvings' locations are flexible, but dragon and phoenix heads must be placed atop the pillars," Zhai says.

The pane also needs to be covered with silk that's painted with images before it's pasted on the glass.

Palace lantern craftspeople need the skills of a carpenter, the knowledge of a mechanic, an appreciation of classical architecture, a proficiency in poetry and painting, and an additional talent for fashioning mortises and tenons before they can create the right carvings and layer combinations, he says.

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