Continuation of Palace Lanterns
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