As Chinese New Year approaches, thousands of lantern makers in China are hard at work. The making of the lanterns is a 500-year-old tradition in China.
This is the season when bright new red lanterns are hung up in streets, houses and businesses.
While most Chinese are preparing for the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) celebrations, the lantern-makers’ work is intensifying.
The tradition began in the early part of the Qing Dynasty (1663-1796). The story goes that Emperor Qianlong passed through the village of Tuntou, in Northern China, on an inspection tour.
The lanterns being made there impressed him so much that the Emperor made Tuntou’s craftsmen his official palace lantern makers.
The village has been home to China’s most famous lantern makers ever since.
The Spring Festival is the most sacred holiday of the year for Chinese. A massive annual migration sees millions crossing the country to reach their ancestral homes.
One of Tuntou’s lantern makers, Zhang, says the lantern is the symbol of this annual reunion: “Everyone likes to raise the lanterns for the spring festival and other festivals, when they have happy thoughts,” he said.
“It signifies the reunion of people. When new year comes or people have a happy event like a wedding, they want to hang the big, beautiful red lanterns.”
The village leader, Su Junping, says the lanterns bring luck to those who buy them – just as they have brought prosperity to his town.
“Because the red lantern is a symbol of luck, wherever it is hung, that place will be prosperous and flourishing.”
Around 1,300 families in Tuntou make lanterns. Together they produce almost six million lanterns a year, supplying markets across China, Asia and beyond.
The town brings in a massive 120m Renminbi Yuan (approximately $14.5m US) in revenue from the sales.
Besides being symbols of luck and prosperity, the lanterns have a religious function as well.
According to one widely-held belief, the lanterns are crucial in lighting the way for China’s household gods and goddesses on an important annual mission.
Lantern seller Qin Yongcheng said: “The lantern is for sending the Kitchen God in every family to go to see the Jade Emperor and make a good report for the family – so that the people on earth can have a good harvest next year and make more money.
“In order that the Kitchen God doesn’t get lost on the way back, people hang the lanterns so that he can find the door.”
Tuntou’s lanterns still adorn the nation’s most ceremonial locations. Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is being kitted out with Tuntou lanterns in readiness for Chinese New Year’s eve on February 5.
Two enormous lanterns will hang from massive frames in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen Gate.
After Chinese New Year’s day, the Spring Festival celebrations culminate with the Lantern Festival.
The Lantern Festival has historically been associated with fertility rites.
Some historians also connect it to celebrations commemorating China’s liberation from Mongol rule in the 14th century.
In today’s China, it is the one time of the year when people can take a break from their daily routines and hope for luck and prosperity in the coming year.