You may not find them easily, but they are everywhere. Sometimes, they are hidden in plain sight. Hidden Gems will be a series of articles, like Chinese Lanterns, you may have known about them for a longer period of time, but the background stories might surprise you. These stories could cover the stories of crafts that originate from a specific culture or the “hidden” communities. This time, the Chinese Lantern has its story to tell. Spoiler alert: it features a special bird and fireworks…

Everyone has seen them before. They are red, oval shaped, hanging in your favourite restaurants, or maybe even at home. For the Chinese, they mean the end of the Chinese New Year. Nowadays, the red bulbs with Chinese characters mean something different for everyone. It has a symbolic meaning but was actually created for a much simpler purpose.

A long time ago, about 25-220 A.D., the people from the Eastern Han Dynasty used Chinese lanterns as we people would probably use them today: as a light source. As the simplest version, they were made from either bamboo, wood, rattan or wire, encased in a delicate silk or paper material. This was to prevent the light from being blown out by the wind. Next to being used as a light source, people would write Chinese characters on them like the name of a shop, the lanterns being their way of advertising or announcing.

There are a few versions of storytelling about the Chinese Lanterns, but the most popular was that according to legends, villagers found a crane that flew from heaven to earth, and decided to kill the bird. This was the Jade Emperors favourite bird, which made him become very upset. Therefore, he sent his men to destroy the village. The emperors’ daughter warned the people in the village and told them to put their lanterns outside. When the emperors’ men came, they were surrounded by a village filled with lanterns and firecrackers, thinking the village was being destroyed already. They left and everyone in the village seemed to be safe. This is why the Chinese Red Lanterns also carried the symbol of protection and security.

While the simple lanterns were created as an easy, and most of all, practical use in and around the house, they eventually got more decorative. The value of the lanterns became very high and rich people loved to use them as a status symbol, placing them in and outside their houses.

Later, Chinese lanterns would be created in he most elaborate forms. Lantern making was becoming a real craft, so much that Buddhist monks adapted it, and started making lanterns too. They would incorporate the lanterns into their ritual worship, on the fifteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar. Soon, other people would join in the ritual, lighting lanterns for Buddha and carry them to the palace in Luoyang. Every year on the fifteenth day of the lunar calendar, the Chinese would celebrate, what has become, the Lantern Festival. The Chinese celebrate this day because it honours deceased ancestors, as well as it is marking the first full moon of the new lunar year. The Hanging Lanterns for example, are more of a common decoration. They can be seen through the streets (think of the China Town in your city) and at homes. Flying lanterns are for more special occasions, where these Lanterns are propelled by rising hot air generated by the flame that can be found within the lantern. These are most often released in large groups for a fascinating effect. Last but not least, Floating Lanterns are popular during Lantern celebrations, such as the Dragon Boat Festival, that take s place near rivers, ponds or lakes. These Floating Lanterns are lit and put adrift in large groups to create a stunning spectacle right above the water. Popular shapes for these are Lotus designs for example.

Did you expect to read these stories? Are you surprised? Especially in the earlier days, people used crafts as a way to communicate with each other. This is why something as simple as Chinese lanterns has so many originating stories. Lanterns can be symbolic creations like promoting status or protecting villagers. The Lantern Festival is to promote reconciliation, peace and forgiveness. In the end, the lanterns can essentially stand for whatever you want to believe in. 


Chinese Lanterns – What they are and How they are used (n.d.). Retrieved from:

Deason, R. (January 2018). A Brief History of Chinese Lanterns. Retrieved from:

Lantern Festival (n.d.). Retrieved from:

Chinese Red Lanterns (May 2012). Retrieved from:

TutorMing Chinese Learning (February 2018). Lantern Festival: What you need to know 元宵节 (video). Youtube.