Travel in Taiwan Festivals

Taipei Lantern Festival The Romantic Radiance of Chinese Culture

By Earl Wieman ,Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung

The people of China have been making decorative lanterns for a very long time, and they have been centering festive activities around them for almost as long. At an early date these activities evolved into the Lantern Festival, held on the night of the first full moon of the year, and the event has continued evolving down to the present. Today, in Taiwan, the Taipei Lantern Festival is the culmination of these thousands of years of development and is likely the biggest and most diversified celebration of Chinese lantern crafts and culture that has ever been held anywhere, anytime.

According to historical records, the festival may have evolved out of activities held to celebrate the lengthening of daylight hours that followed closely on the New Year. A Buddhist legend has it that a Han dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 220) emperor ordered displays of light on the 15th night of the first lunar month to show respect to the Buddha. Or, perhaps, Buddhists carried torches about to help them see the deities that they believed were flitting about through the air on this night.

Or maybe the festival did not begin until the Tang dynasty, when Emperor Jui Tsung (r. A.D. 710-713) had a thousand ladies of the court sing and dance in a brightly lighted plaza on the 15th night of the year. Alternatively, his son, Hsuan Tsung (r. A.D. 713-756), started the festival by ordering beautiful women to sing and dance in an area lighted with colored lanterns.

However it started, the common people were soon following the example of their rulers and the observance of the Lantern Festival spread all over the country. Eventually it came to mark the end of the New Year season.

The duration of the festivities once lengthened to as much as 45 days; after the Republic of China was established in 1912 the holiday was shortened to five days, and later on to three. With urbanization and modernization, its length continued to contract and its importance weaken until it was largely ignored, except by children who carried lanterns around the streets and temples that mounted displays of handicraft lanterns.

Then, with the holding of the first Taipei Lantern Festival by the Tourism Bureau of the Republic of China in 1990, the old Lantern Festival took on a new life. Now held for three days centered around the traditional date--the 15th day of the first lunar month, when the moon is full for the first time of the year--the Taipei Lantern Festival is part of a nation-wide series of activities known as Tourism Week.


The festival in all its splendor.

In 1996 the Taipei Lantern Festival will take place on March 4-6. As usual, it will be held on and around the grounds of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. There will be displays of thousands upon thousands of lanterns of all shapes, sizes, and colors, from the traditional lanterns fashioned by hand of paper stretched over a bamboo frame, to huge animated floats sponsored by temples and civic groups, to high-tech extravaganzas with stabbing laser rays, rolling artificial smoke, and synthesized music.

Year of the Rat


The theme lantern for last year: the Year of the Pig.

The grandest lantern of all is the giant theme lantern, which is modeled on the Chinese zodiacal animal of the year. Since 1996 is the Year of the Rat, the theme lantern, which will be positioned in the center of the memorial hall plaza, will be fashioned on that rodent. There will be nine rats, in fact, since a traditional scholar of the Yi Ching, or Book of Changes, has (by studying the Five Elements and Eight Trigrams) determined that nine is a lucky number for rats this year.

To most Westerners the rat might not seem like a very admirable animal, but the Chinese do not view the rodent in this way. To them the rat symbolizes courtesy because of its habit of standing on its hind feet with its front paws held together in an attitude of seeming reverence. In the minds of the Chinese, the rat is also associated with wealth and nobility. Thus they look upon the rat with a certain amount of affection. In times past, they even followed the custom of setting food out for rats to eat on one night during the New Year season, believing that the rodents held their nuptials at that time.

This year the theme lantern will be 13 or 14 meters tall. As always, it will be the centerpiece of a regular night-time sound-and-light show featuring laser beams, artificial smoke, changing colors, and modern music played as the gigantic sculpture rotates 360 degrees.

The theme lantern will be far from the only representation of the rat seen at the Taipei Lantern Festival. There will be thousands of others, of all types, in his shape. There will be lanterns made by schoolchildren, lanterns made by master craftsmen, and huge lanterns made by teams of workers. In addition to the rat, just about every other subject imaginable will be presented: animals, fish, birds, insects, cartoon characters (both Chinese and Western), human beings, and machines such as automobiles and airplanes.

To make sure that every child has his or her own lantern, 100,000 small, battery-powered lanterns will be passed out, free of charge, on the first afternoon of the festival.

Civic and Business Participation

Different sections of the four streets bordering the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall will be designated for different types of lanterns. One section will contain six 15-meter trailers bearing competition lanterns made by elementary school and high school students, as well as others, along with the creations of master craftsmen. The main gate facing Chungshan South Road will be flanked by large lanterns contributed by the Grand Formosa Regent and Grand hotels. Lanterns sponsored by the Fubon Group will provide lighting all along the four streets.

Lantern floats constructed by temples, government organizations, and civic groups will line one of the streets. Many of these will be dioramas, and some will feature electromechanical figures that move and illustrate stories from history and mythology. All will present uplifting messages or moral tales. The International Lantern Area will have 15 or so large lanterns, many of them high-tech, offered by tourism-related organizations. Other areas will be allocated to lanterns from hotels and recreational sites.

The street bordering the memorial hall plaza to the east will be lined with booths presenting displays and demonstrations of traditional handicrafts such as fan painting, dough sculpture, candy-figure blowing, paper cutting, Chinese knotwork, traditional toys, and countless others, along with Chinese sweets and snacks. In the middle of this section will be a temporary but fully functioning temple, with crowds of devotees lined up to offer incense.


Scenes from the lion dance.

A series of performances in the memorial hall plaza will enliven the afternoons of the festival. There will be, of course, lion and dragon dances, as well as acrobatic acts, folk arts skits, mock battles, musical performances, singing and dancing, and music.

Taken as a whole, the Taipei Lantern Festival is the most fantastic display of Chinese culture that can be seen anywhere in the world. It attracts millions of visitors every year, and no one who is lucky enough to be in Taipei at the time of the event should miss the opportunity to be among them.


Travel in Taiwan Festivals
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.