- The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. Marcel Proust
Go to the Lantern Festival in Taiwan
Held on the first full-moon night of the lunar year, the Lantern Festival is commonly regarded as one of the most important and romantic festivals in Taiwan. The festival is celebrated with lantern making, lantern riddle games, and displays of glittering decorative lanterns. The traditional festival food is tangyuan, also called yuansiao. These are glutinous rice dumplings with sweet or savory stuffings. Tangyuan come in many different choices of flavors. Sesame, peanut, red bean paste and minced pork are the most common and popular flavors, while new flavors such as taro, green tea, and sweet osmanthus preserves have also been attracting fans in recent years. The origin of the festival lies in the festive activities of an agricultural people celebrating the lengthening of daylight hours and the coming of spring after the New Year. Other legends have it that the festival was actually started by an emperor of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), who was a devout Buddhist and who ordered his people to display lights on the fifteenth night of the first month of the lunar year to pay respects to Buddha. According to the same legend, holding torches or lanterns on this night makes it easier to see deities descending from heaven to give blessings to the earth. Yet another legend has it that in the Tang dynasty, the emperors would celebrate the festival by ordering hundreds of beautiful women to sing and dance with lanterns in the brightly lit plaza. These festive activities gradually spread to the common people and developed into the most popular festival in the year after Chinese New Year. The festival is also called the Little New Year. In the old days, these festivities, together with the celebrations for the Chinese New Year, would last for as long as forty-five days. Nowadays the festival lasts for a week.
Many lantern festival events are held all over Taiwan to promote local tourism. In 1990, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau held the first Taipei Lantern Festival, which injected a whole new life into the event. It has become a major tourist event in Taiwan over the years. Thanks to the advancements of modern technology, every year a gigantic lantern installation is erected in the middle of the plaza of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, usually carrying the theme in line with the Chinese horoscope sign of that year. The lantern installation includes performances combining laser lights, music and sculptural arts. On the four sides of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, smaller lantern installations depict folklore and historical events, and large multi-colored lanterns, many in the likeness of different plants and animals such as butterflies, dragons, dinosaurs and birds, are hung up along the road. You can also find interesting live folk performances such as lion and dragon dances, acrobatic acts, folk art skits, mock battles, and booths that demonstrate and sell traditional handicrafts such as fan painting, lantern making, dough sculpture, candy-figure blowing, paper cutting, Chinese knotwork, and many delicious snacks and sweets. During the festival period, a tunnel of lights is put up on the roads of Taipei, dressing up the whole city with glittering lights. Every year the event attracts tens of thousands of people from around Taiwan and other countries in the region, making it one of the biggest tourist highlights in Asia at the beginning of every year.
Next year, starting from March 3, 2007, the Taiwan Lantern Festival, the official national lantern festival, will be held in Taibao City, Chiayi. Last year the festival was held in Tainan and attracted around three million people to marvel at an array of dazzling lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Next year's organizers have promised to make the festival the grandest and biggest ever with even more new ideas – this guarantees an event you'll not want to miss. Because 2007 is the Year of the Pig according to the Chinese zodiac, the main theme lantern will come in the likeness of a pig illuminated by an elaborate show of lasers and music. The year's motto for the main theme lantern will be "Fong Tiao Yu Shun", meaning "Timely Wind and Rain", which is the local people's wish for good weather and thus a good harvest in the coming year. In addition to the main theme lantern, the smaller side shows of lanterns are very often just as attractive and fascinating. These smaller lanterns are local competition winners. Many cultural activities are also planned for next year's lantern festival, including music, dance, and theatrical performances. Next year the organizers will introduce two firsts which are expected to be very popular with visitors. An international circus will entertain the crowds with clowns, acrobatics, animal tricks and much more. The second new addition is a Ferris wheel, which will take visitors high above the festival site to appreciate the glittering lanterns from a different angle. Should anyone feel hungry while strolling and browsing the lanterns, a food arcade selling local specialties and snacks will be available. For those who want to take home souvenirs and great memories of the event, the street of folk-art handicraft booths will be the ideal place to wrap up the day.
In 2001, Kaohsiung, the second biggest city in Taiwan, also started an annual celebration of the lantern festival. The Kaohsiung Lantern Festival is held on the banks of the Love River that runs through the city. In 2006 the main lantern was designed in the shape of a flower with sixteen petals. The flower petals opened and closed in synchronization with the music and laser light shows that surrounded it. In addition to the main theme lantern every year, the festival boasts a stunning river-side laser, fireworks and water fountain show. The riverbanks are flanked with folk performances, music or dance shows, booths of traditional handicrafts and delicious snacks. The trees lining the banks are covered with glittering lanterns, whose light reflects on the lapping water of the Love River, increasing its romantic charm. As Kaohsiung has been selected to host the World Games in 2009, in the 2006 festival there was an area with light boxes showing information about the city's preparations for the upcoming event.
Another type of lantern that's worth looking into is the heavenly lantern (or sky lantern) in Pingsi, Taipei County. The lanterns are made of frames (usually bamboo but nowadays some are made with thin steel wires) covered with oiled paper or tissue. Inside the lantern is a paper ball dipped in kerosene. When the paper ball inside the lantern is lit, the hot air gradually fills the lantern, and it is released to rise up into the sky. It is believed that the heavenly lantern was invented by Kung Ming (181 – 234 A.D.), who was a famous military strategist, statesman, engineer, scholar and inventor during the Three Kingdoms era in China. Hence the lanterns are also called "Kung Ming lanterns". It is believed that the lanterns were first used as a means of communications between two distant places. Pingsi's affiliation with heavenly lanterns is due to the inaccessibility of this remote and banditry-prone mountain area. In the early days, to let others know that they were safe and sound, the villagers released heavenly lanterns into the sky. The practice evolved into a popular tradition celebrated every year during the Lantern Festival. Heavenly lanterns are also deemed as auspicious. Nowadays people write their New Year wishes on the lanterns before releasing them into the sky. It is believed that these wishes will be carried into heaven where the deities will fulfill them.
Taitung's Bombing the God Handan is another interesting, if not more exciting, celebration you can experience during the Lantern Festival. In Taiwanese folklore the God Handan is said to be in charge of wealth. Like humans, the god is very afraid of the cold, so when he goes on a procession his followers and those who seek great wealth bombard him with fireworks in the hope of keeping him warm and, consequently, winning his favor. It is believed that the more fireworks there are, the luckier and more prosperous the coming year will be. When taken on a procession, Handan is played by a shaman, whose face is colorfully painted, sitting on a sedan chair carried by four other men. The god usually wears nothing except a red headscarf, an amulet on his chest and red shorts. He holds a banyan tree branch to protect his eyes while his followers throw fireworks and firecrackers at him. It's a very exciting and exotic festival, and definitely an unforgettable experience for anyone who witnesses it for the first time!
In addition to the Lantern Festival, there are many more colorful, exotic and exciting festivals celebrated around Taiwan in the first lunar month. It is a great time for visitors who want to experience authentic Taiwanese culture, hospitality, customs and delicious local festive cuisine and snacks. For those of you who are looking for a vacation that allows you to experience the world's different cultures, Taiwan is definitely one place you would not want to miss!