Con­tin­u­a­tion of Palace Lanterns

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhang Hong­peng Edited by Scott Bray Pho­tos by Li Xiaoyin

As its lit­eral mean­ing in­di­cates, the palace lantern was used in im­pe­rial palaces dur­ing China’s im­pe­rial dy­nas­ties, func­tion­ing as both light­ing de­vice and or­na­ment. Cur­rently, the pro­duc­tion of palace lanterns has been rated as an in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage item in Tianjin.

About 800 years ago in a poem ti­tled “Qingyu’an” (“Green jade ta­ble”), Xin Qiji (1140–1207), a Chi­nese poet and mil­i­tary leader from the Song Dy­nasty (AD 960–1279), de­scribed a lantern fair bustling with vis­i­tors, lantern lights like the blos­soms of a thou­sand trees and a chance en­counter with a girl be­tween the lanterns. Vi­brant lantern fairs, which were staged to cel­e­brate Chi­nese Lantern Fes­ti­val, have been doc­u­mented through­out his­tor­i­cal records. The Chi­nese Lantern Fes­ti­val falls on the 14th day af­ter the Chi­nese New Year. Dur­ing the fes­ti­val, all homes, lanes and al­leys were dec­o­rated with all man­ner of lanterns in an­cient China. Yet one cat­e­gory of lanterns stood out from all oth­ers: the palace lantern.

As its lit­eral mean­ing in­di­cates, the palace lantern was used in im­pe­rial palaces dur­ing China’s im­pe­rial dy­nas­ties. The size and shape of a palace lantern can vary, but they all fea­ture ex­quis­ite de­sign and ex­cel­lent crafts­man­ship. The com­plete process of mak­ing a palace lantern in­volves over 100 steps, from pre­par­ing wood and carv­ing com­po­nents to pol­ish­ing, wax­ing and paint­ing the lanterns’ frames. A sin­gle palace lantern fre­quently took sev­eral months to make. Un­like or­di­nary fes­tive lanterns, the palace lantern is char­ac­terised by gor­geous or­na­ments and its im­pe­rial style, a true sym­bol of tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture.

A Lantern In­volv­ing Crafts

Lanterns have played im­por­tant roles in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances in tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture. They were widely used at fu­ner­als and wed­dings alike, al­though in dif­fer­ent shapes and colours. The man­sions of cer­tain se­nior of­fi­cials would have lanterns hung above their front gates to mark the own­er­ship and rank of the home. Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, the palace lantern was cre­ated dur­ing the East­ern Han Dy­nasty (AD 25–220). Af­ter Em­peror Guangwu (born Liu Xiu, 5 BC–AD 57) re­uni­fied China and founded the East­ern Han Dy­nasty, he gave the or­der to hang lanterns and hold par­ties in the im­pe­rial palace to cel­e­brate the uni­fi­ca­tion of the na­tion. The crafts­man­ship of the lanterns later spread to com­mon­ers. As the lantern style came from the palace, they were dubbed “palace lanterns.”

Palace lanterns be­gan play­ing an im­por­tant role on the Lantern Fes­ti­val start­ing from the East­ern Han Dy­nasty and in the dy­nas­ties that fol­lowed. Dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618–907), from the 12th to 18th days in the first lu­nar month (or three days be­fore and af­ter the Lantern Fes­ti­val), the cap­i­tal city’s cur­few was lifted in or­der to ad­mit peo­ple who lived out­side the cap­i­tal into the city to view the lanterns. Dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Xuan­zong (AD 713–756), 20 large lantern tow­ers made of silk were erected in the Shangyang Palace. Dec­o­rated with or­na­ments of jade, gold and sil­ver ob­jects, the lantern tow­ers would pro­duce har­mo­nious and dis­tinct tones when blown by the wind, like mas­sive, gor­geous wind chimes.

Dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty, lanterns were hung and kept for 10 days in the cap­i­tal to cel­e­brate the Lantern Fes­ti­val. Large lantern tow­ers were also built to light up the city. Dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Yon­gle (1402–1424), lantern pil­lars were set up in front of the Meridian Gate in Bei­jing.

By the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911), lanterns were on dis­play in the im­pe­rial palace from the 24th day of the 12th lu­nar month to the Lantern Fes­ti­val it­self. Lantern fairs were mainly held at the Palace of Heav­enly Pu­rity, Gar­den of Ev­er­last­ing Spring, Old Sum­mer Palace, Im­pe­rial Gar­den and the Meridian Gate of the For­bid­den City. Dur­ing the fes­ti­val, di­verse lanterns were hung on halls, pavil­ions, cor­ri­dors, ter­races, tow­ers, palaces, doors and stone balustrades, look­ing like nu­mer­ous stars had taken rest on the earth. The Palace of Heav­enly Pu­rity alone was lit up by a to­tal of 999 palace lanterns, in­clud­ing 16 longevity lanterns and 128 dis­tinc­tive lantern styles. Af­ter the fes­ti­val, the ma­jor­ity were stored in ware­houses for re­use in the com­ing year. Dur­ing the fes­ti­val it­self, im­pe­rial fam­ily mem­bers and maids in the im­pe­rial palace were re­quired to wear clothes with palace lantern mo­tifs.

As com­ple­ments to tra­di­tional Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture, palace lanterns were in har­mony with pala­tial build­ings. When hung over cor­ri­dors, their tas­sels flut­tered back and forth as they gen­tly swayed in the breeze, man­i­fest­ing har­mony be­tween build­ings and their en­vi­ron­ments. Tra­di­tional palace lanterns were sym­met­ri­cally de­signed and crafted and helped high­light tra­di­tional Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures like carved beams and painted rafters. Most palace lanterns were hexag­o­nal and com­prised of an up­per and lower part that was linked by chains. The up­per part, known as the lantern cap, was a stan­dard com­po­nent for im­pe­rial palace lanterns, while the lower part was called the lantern body. The up­per and lower parts both have

six faces of painted silk or glass. Palace lanterns are usu­ally painted in solemn and grace­ful mo­tifs.

Light­ing was not the only use for palace lanterns. Spe­cial lanterns also cre­ated a solemn at­mo­sphere at im­por­tant cer­e­monies, re­lat­ing to tra­di­tional Chi­nese rites. As a re­sult, palace lanterns played a crit­i­cal role in im­por­tant rit­u­als.

Their use and role in rit­u­als weak­ened dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties and even­tu­ally dis­ap­peared. Al­though rel­e­gated to a source of light, para­dox­i­cally it be­came an op­por­tu­nity to re­form and di­ver­sify the styles and shapes of the palace lantern. Dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Yon­gle, crafts­men were re­cruited from Suzhou and Hangzhou to make lanterns for the im­pe­rial palace. In turn, the Im­pe­rial House­hold Depart­ment of the later Qing Dy­nasty es­tab­lished a lantern ware­house to pro­duce and main­tain palace lanterns.

Dur­ing this time, pro­duc­tion of palace lanterns boomed and styles di­ver­si­fied dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties. The back­bones of palace lanterns from the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties were mainly made of rose­wood, red sandalwood and other pre­cious woods or other ma­te­rial such as bone, bronze, enamel and carved lac­quer. Palace lanterns of the time fea­tured var­i­ous shapes like balls, ovals, cubes, hexag­o­nal prisms, pen­ta­gons and oc­tagons. Lantern frames were made by glu­ing to­gether wood pieces carved with pat­terns. Fig­ures such as dragons and phoenixes fea­tured on the lantern cap while the lantern body was em­bel­lished with paint­ings of nat­u­ral scenery, hu­man fig­ures, flow­ers, birds, in­sects and fish. Tas­sels were usu­ally added to the bot­tom of the lanterns. Ev­ery palace lantern was the com­bi­na­tion of top-notch crafts­man­ship and pre­cious ma­te­rial, and served as an ex­am­ple of tra­di­tional Chi­nese crafts dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties.

As silk pro­duc­tion devel­oped along­side rel­e­vant tech­niques, or­di­nary silk lanterns also saw a rapid de­vel­op­ment dur­ing the two dy­nas­ties. Made of bam­boo strips and silk, these silk lanterns be­came the most com­monly seen palace lanterns. Dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties, lanterns’ silk cov­ers were thin and light and were usu­ally painted with nat­u­ral scenery, peo­ple, bird-and-flower sub­jects, an­tiques and scenes from myths, leg­ends and sto­ries.

The For­bid­den City was bright­ened by a wide ar­ray of palace lanterns, in­clud­ing desk, wall, dec­o­ra­tive, cer­e­mo­nial and fes­tive lanterns dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties. At that time, some lantern shops mush­roomed and flour­ished out­side the city. Wen Sheng Zhai topped all the shops in pop­u­lar­ity at the time.

Crafts Spread from the Im­pe­rial Palace to Civil­ians

Wen Sheng Zhai, founded dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Jaiqing (1796–1820) and lo­cated on Lang­fang Toutiao out­side of Qian­men, was an ex­clu­sive lantern provider for im­pe­rial palaces and man­sions dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty. Its hand­made lanterns rep­re­sented the up­per ech­e­lon of Bei­jing’s palace lanterns in their de­sign, struc­tural lay­out, paint­ing and tas­sel-mak­ing. Han Zix­ing, founder of Wen Sheng Zhai, was once in­vited into the For­bid­den City to make palace lanterns, a firm recog­ni­tion by the im­pe­rial fam­ily of the shop’s tal­ents. Wen Sheng Zhai lanterns are made on hard wood frames in the shapes of rec­tan­gu­lar solids and hexag­o­nal prisms that can be folded and re­moved. Each corner of their lanterns are given a tas­sel, and its frames are in­laid with painted-on glass.

Dur­ing the late Qing Dy­nasty, the shop made lanterns for the im­pe­rial court and high-rank­ing of­fi­cials. Lantern frames then were made of bam­boo or metal, and silk cov­ers were pasted onto the frames with a type of fish scale glue that cre­ated a semi­trans­par­ent wind­proof shield­ing. These lanterns, which fea­tured rich, colour­ful paint­ings, were hung over the gates of princes and high-rank­ing of­fi­cials to high­light their own­ers’ so­cial sta­tuses in the late Qing Dy­nasty. In 1915, palace lanterns pro­duced by Wen Sheng Zhai won two gold medals at the Panama Pa­cific In­ter­na­tional Ex­po­si­tion, giv­ing the roy­ally-recog­nised shop an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion.

At the heart of Bei­jing’s lantern stores, and Wen Sheng Zhai’s head­quar­ters, was Lang­fang Toutiao, which was so clus­tered with lantern stores that lo­cals also called it Lantern Street. Wen Sheng Zhai has wit­nessed both the pros­per­ity and de­cline of palace lanterns. In the early 20th cen­tury, China was rav­aged by wars, forc­ing dozens of lantern stores along Lang­fang Toutiao to shut down. Even­tu­ally, Wen Sheng Zhai had to close its doors with the rest.

In the early 1950s, Wen Sheng Zhai and other sev­eral lantern stores were re­struc­tured and in­te­grated to form the Bei­jing Fine Arts and Red Lanterns Fac­tory. The fac­tory’s out­let con­tin­ues to use the Wen Sheng Zhai brand. In to­day’s Wen Sheng Zhai out­let, nu­mer­ous beau­ti­ful palace lanterns are on dis­play in its 200 square me­tre store.

Pro­duc­tion of Bei­jing’s palace lanterns is a com­pli­cated af­fair. Nearly 50 pro­cesses such as wood­carv­ing, bam­boo and cop­per fram­ing, cre­at­ing cov­ers from glass or cow horn cov­ers paint­ing aus­pi­cious mo­tifs go into each lantern. Some lanterns are given ad­di­tional with glass cov­ers, on which painters usu­ally paint tra­di­tional Chi­nese flow­ers such as or­chids and pe­onies to high­light tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture.

The pro­duc­tion of palace lanterns has been passed down by gen­er­a­tions of crafts­men through sim­ple, yet prag­matic id­ioms. Vet­eran Bei­jing Fine Arts and Red Lanterns Fac­tory lantern crafts­men deeply love palace lanterns and con­tinue to con­trib­ute to the tra­di­tion and pro­duc­tion of palace lanterns. While they usu­ally rush to en­gage in the mass pro­duc­tion of com­mon lanterns, each part of a palace lantern is made care­fully and pa­tiently. Com­mon lanterns are the bread and but­ter of pro­duc­tion, but the pur­suit of the craft and its artistry lies in palace lanterns. In spite of their con­stant de­vel­op­ment, palace lanterns con­tinue to re­tain the same im­pe­rial style thanks to the con­tin­u­ous aes­thet­ics of gen­er­a­tions of crafts­men.

The crafts­men from Wen Sheng Zhai to the Bei­jing Fine Arts and Red Lanterns Fac­tory men­tioned that there couldn’t be a more or­di­nary line of work than mak­ing palace lanterns to make a day’s wage. Yet they are ded­i­cated to con­tin­u­ing and de­vel­op­ing the craft, and their fine, care­ful work shows that they con­tinue to

be fas­ci­nated by palace lanterns. Through their ef­forts, the craft of palace lanterns not only con­tin­ues, it im­proves. The Thriv­ing Lantern In­dus­try Palace lanterns used to be ex­clu­sive im­pe­rial prod­ucts, pre­sented to princes and high-rank­ing of­fi­cials as gifts dur­ing fes­ti­vals. Dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty, palace lanterns were man­aged by the Pro­duc­tion Di­vi­sion of the Im­pe­rial House­hold Depart­ment and if nec­es­sary, the di­vi­sion en­gaged crafts­men to make lanterns in the im­pe­rial palace. These crafts­men were not for­mally em­ployed by, or de­voted to, serv­ing the im­pe­rial court. As a re­sult, the craft of mak­ing palace lanterns spread to civil­ians.

To avoid vi­o­lat­ing im­pe­rial reg­u­la­tions, civil­ian crafts­men would re­move cer­tain ac­ces­sories as­so­ci­ated with top-level lanterns. Civil­ian lanterns were tai­lored to the needs and de­sires of more com­mon tastes and fol­lowed mar­ket trends. With the changes of time, oil lamps and cra­dles gave way to elec­tric light bulbs, but lanterns re­mained pop­u­lar among ev­ery­day peo­ple. As palace lanterns grew in pop­u­lar­ity, the craft spread in the vicin­ity of Bei­jing, to ar­eas such as Tianjin and He­bei. As all civil­ian crafts­men ul­ti­mately learned their craft from the im­pe­rial palace, their lanterns had sim­i­lar styles, shapes and fea­tures.

Zhou Rong­bin, an heir of in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage from Dongli Dis­trict, Tianjin, is a vet­eran palace lantern crafts­man. Zhou’s great grand­fa­ther worked at the Im­pe­rial House­hold Depart­ment dur­ing the late Qing Dy­nasty, tak­ing charge of the man­age­ment and su­per­vi­sion of in­ter­nal dé­cor and palace lanterns for the im­pe­rial court. In the early 20th cen­tury, Zhou’s fam­ily moved from Bei­jing to Tianjin, tak­ing their craft with them. Thanks to el­der gen­er­a­tions of his fam­ily, Zhou Rong­bin learnt how to make palace lanterns from child­hood.

Tra­di­tional craft­ing of palace lanterns is very com­pli­cated and in­volves wood­work­ing, me­chan­ics and the aes­thet­ics of tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture. Crafts­men should be able to write po­ems and cre­ate paint­ings. In just the frame of the lantern, the process of mak­ing it spans sev­eral dis­ci­plines. Since his in­volve­ment in cre­at­ing palace lanterns, Zhou has devel­oped many prod­ucts in his own style. In the early 1980s, he worked as the tech­nol­ogy man­ager of the Golden Dragon Lantern Fac­tory of Tianjin No. 3 Con­struc­tion Cor­po­ra­tion and suc­ceeded in com­bin­ing mod­ern lantern-mak­ing tech­niques with tra­di­tional crafts­man­ship. He has since shaped his own unique artis­tic style, and his lanterns have been col­lected by or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­di­vid­u­als from coun­tries and re­gions such as the United States, Ja­pan, Ger­many and the prov­ince of Tai­wan in China.

Zhou has stored di­verse frames, de­signs and doc­u­ments con­cern­ing palace lanterns for some 40 years, which re­flect de­vel­op­ments in the crafts­man­ship and struc­ture of palace lanterns. Based on tra­di­tional oc­tag­o­nal and hexag­o­nal palace lanterns, he has pi­loted new palace lanterns in the shapes of cul­tural land­marks like the For­bid­den City, Yel­low Crane Tower and the an­cient pago­das of Shanxi. By fol­low­ing tra­di­tional craft­work such as paint­ing, pa­per cut­ting, en­grav­ing and em­broi­der­ing, Zhou has en­sured the cre­ation of dis­tinc­tive lanterns. What has al­ways caught the at­ten­tion of his fel­low crafts­men, how­ever, is his achieve­ments mak­ing drag­on­shaped palace lanterns, giv­ing him the nick­name “Dragon Lantern Zhou.”

From the first day he learned about the cre­ation of palace lanterns from his fa­ther, Zhou Rong­bin has been in­volved in mak­ing lanterns for nearly 70 years. He has since be­come the “num­ber one palace lantern crafts­man” in Tianjin. Thanks to his fam­ily’s in­volve­ment in mak­ing palace lanterns, which spans four gen­er­a­tions, the fam­ily has devel­oped its own dis­tinct style. In 2010, the Zhou Fam­ily Palace Lantern was of­fi­cially rated as a Tianjin mu­nic­i­pal­level in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage item.

In an­cient times, palace lanterns were used to il­lu­mi­nate and dec­o­rate the im­pe­rial palaces. Some have feared the lanterns would be doomed to dis­ap­pear to the pages of his­tory. How­ever, thanks to con­tri­bu­tions of crafts­men like Zhou, palace lanterns are still pop­u­lar in Bei­jing, Tianjin and He­bei and con­tinue to brighten lives both re­gal and reg­u­lar.

The palace lantern, hung be­low the eaves of tra­di­tional Chi­nese build­ings, serves as a re­minder that de­spite the pros­per­ity and col­lapse of past dy­nas­ties, even thou­sands of years later, the beauty of such scenes re­mains un­changed.

Mak­ing a lantern’s frame

Com­pleted lanterns on dis­play

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