To add to the festive atmosphere, communities in many regions of China hold lantern shows during Lantern Festival (15th day of the first lunar month, and the first full moon of the year). The tradition dates back about 2,000 years. Chinese have long considered lanterns to be symbols of joy, hope and prosperity. Lanterns made in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province and one of China's historical and cultural cities, are world renowned, given the ingenious designs and superb workmanship by their creators. There is little wonder, then, that Nanjing Lantern Show is praised as the "No. 1 Lantern Show in China." The annual lantern show, held along the banks of the Qinhuai River (in Nanjing), was added to China's list of intangible cultural heritage in 2006.
During the festival, Nanjing bustles with activity. Numerous people from around the world visit temple fairs during the daytime, and lantern shows at night. The annual lantern show, which is held along the banks of the Qinhuai River, lasts more than 50 days. It is the only show (in China) that integrates a lantern exhibition and a lantern fair.
Records indicate, during the Southern Dynasties (420-589), Nanjing took the lead in China in holding a lantern show. To usher in the lantern festival, many households, stores and shops were decorated with lanterns and colorful streamers. Many residents were dressed in splendid attire for the festive occasion. The custom of holding the festival (in Nanjing) became all the rage during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Over past millennia, Nanjing's residents have taken delight in appreciating the beautiful lanterns created within the city, and in watching acrobatic performances during successive lantern shows. During each show, one may appreciate the thousands of colorful, hand-made lanterns, which combine to turn night into day. The lantern show definitely is a sight to behold.
The festival offers an opportunity for craftspeople to show the artistic charm of their lanterns to visitors from around the world. Many of the craftspeople's items are big sellers during the cultural event.
The colorful lanterns come in different shapes, including figures, animals, flowers and boats. Multiple skills, such as paper-cutting, embroidering and carving, are used to make the lanterns. Local craftspeople use bright colors to vividly, yet in an exaggerated way, depict figures, animals and plants on the lanterns. They also use scenes and figures from Chinese operas and folk tales as the themes of the paintings (on the lanterns). During the past millennium, the craftspeople have created numerous exquisite paintings (on the items), which have had tremendous aesthetic value. Moreover, as the unique art form embodies Nanjing's aesthetic, literary and artistic ideologies, the lanterns have high historical and cultural value.
Given the lanterns' ingenious, creative designs, many Chinese and foreign artists recognize the lantern-making craft as an exquisite art form. For example, glittering, translucent lanterns, made from silk and bamboo, are nothing less than superb works of art. In recent years, electro-optical technologies have been used to make the lanterns more dynamic, audible and true to life. Accompanied by melodious music, numerous lanterns were shone on large, electro-optical lantern structures.
A distinctive feature of Nanjing Lantern Show is the ingenious integration of exquisite lanterns and beautiful scenery. The "intelligent craftsmen" set various-shaped lanterns in different places in gardens or parks to display the artistic charm of the lanterns. For example, they place bird-shaped lanterns on trees and frog- and lotus-shaped lanterns in lakes.
In recent years, the lantern shows have lured tourists to Nanjing, and the shows have generated substantial revenues for the local government. The lantern shows have become models copied by other regions of China, each of which has experienced a resulting rise in tourism. As an increasing number of visitors have gone to one or more of the regions to see lanterns in recent years, tourism income has increased substantially in various regions of China.
Gu Yeliang, 57, a native of Nanjing, is a State-level inheritor of the craft of making Nanjing's lanterns. In 2003, the United Nations (UN) named him an international master of arts and crafts. Gu has dedicated his life to pursuing his dream — displaying the unique charm of Nanjing's lanterns worldwide. His zest for the craft has inspired him to tirelessly pursue artistic perfection during the past 40-plus years. He has also put a lot of effort into innovating lantern-making techniques, to add beauty to his artworks. He has won many prizes during international and national cultural activities.
"The essential qualities of a lantern maker include the love for lanterns, the craft-making skills and long-lasting concentration. To learn how to create lanterns, one must have a strong sense of responsibility, and one must be able to withstand loneliness and resist the temptation of a materialistic life; after all, it will take many years to become a master of the art form," says Gu.
During the past several decades, Gu has strived to promote the traditional Chinese craft throughout the world. He has exchanged ideas with local artisans on how to create exquisite lanterns, during his trips to 47 countries. Every year, Gu invites artisans from France and Holland to visit Nanjing, so he can brainstorm with them to come up with many good ideas to design fashionable, beautiful lanterns.
"Regardless of how the times change, or how our lives are transformed, we must remain committed to promoting the traditional Chinese crafts, as the crafts are the roots of our cultural confidence," says Gu.
During the past few years, Gu has provided lectures, especially to primary school students in Nanjing, and he has written books for university students, to publicize information about both the craft and Nanjing's folk arts and customs. He has also helped Nanjing Confucius Temple Lanterns Art Center, his work unit, recruit more than 4,000 laid-off workers. He has invested much time and energy in leading craftspeople to develop the skills needed to both make the lanterns and expand the market. Given Gu and the craftspeople's efforts, an increasing number of residents in Nanjing have taken up the craft-related jobs in recent years. That, in turn, has greatly promoted the development of Nanjing's tourism industry.
So far, Gu has cultivated more than 10 inheritors (of the craft), including university and doctoral students. In addition to the lantern-making skills, Gu has also taught his apprentices how to conduct themselves (in society).
"I hope my apprentices will create more, and better, artworks than me. That will be the best reward to me," says Gu.
(Women of China English Monthly January 2020 issue)
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