“Writing lanterns”: a traditional skill is in danger
When mentioning handmade lanterns, many Chaoshan people will spontaneously think about Longdu County, a small village in Chenghai District, Shantou City. In Longdu, Chen Baohua, a 67-year-old lantern craftsman, and his wife Lin Hanqing were busy making lanterns for the coming Spring Festival.
Sitting on a wooden stool in front of the house, Chen was cutting bamboo into fixed lengths to knit lantern frames. “Every year from November, we will be extremely busy because there’s a huge need for lanterns in the Chaoshan area during the Spring Festival,” said Chen.
Lanterns, as traditional decorations mainly for the Lunar New Year and the Lantern Festival, can be traced back to the Xihan Dynasty (206 B.C. – 8 A.D.), according to the book The Chinese Folk Culture, published by Beijing University Press. Chen’s ancestors started to make lanterns in the Qianmei village of Shantou, Guangdong in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Almost every family in the Chaoshan area has the custom of hanging lanterns on the front door, because in Chinese, a lantern is called “deng”, which sounds similar to “ding”, meaning a family member, especially a man. Only by giving birth to a boy, can a family considers that they have an heir, and hanging the lanterns is a way to announce the good news of the birth of a son. according to Folk Custom in Guangdong.
In the Chaoshan area, lanterns are not only used for lighting and ornamental decorations, but also used by natives for praying to deities and identifying their family. According to the book named The Chaoshan Folk Customs written by Chen Youyi, the director of Chaoshan History and Culture Research Center, the conventional Chaoshan society was a typical collective society, where people who had the same family names lived together and held a strong ideology of patriarchal clan.
In the past 40 years, making lanterns has become the main financial pillar in Chen’s family. Chen said that each year, they could sell 3,000 to 4,000 different kinds of lanterns on average; some were even sold to Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. However, Chen also said, the need for handmade lanterns had declined in recent years, so did the number of local lantern makers.
“One of the reasons that people are unwilling to make lanterns nowadays is that it requires complex and detailed procedures,” said Lin Hanqing, Chen’s wife. According to Lin, it takes about 2 to 3 days to finish making a lantern. When there’re too many orders at the end of the year, they could hardly handle them even she and her husband cooperated together.
A sharp saw, several writing brushes, a ruler made of bamboo, a special knife to cut bamboo claddings and a wooden “lantern core” are Chen’s best partners when making lanterns. According to Chen，the “lantern core” is used as a standard template in making lanterns. Putting one side of the lantern frame over the“lantern core”, Chen started to weaving the rest part of the frame according to the shape of the “lantern core.”
According to Chen, the wooden “lantern core” is only used to make “Zisun” lanterns, which are needed when there’s an old man passed away in a family. “If a man has four sons, his sons need to hang four lanterns when the man passes away,” said Chen.
Chen and his wife said, the wooden “lantern core” is the most special and valuable tool. It was passed down from generation to generation. “I can’t even tell how old it is, because since I could remember anything, it has already been there,” Chen said.
Chen and Lin have a daughter and a son. Before 2010, Chen’s daughter, Chen Dongjie, also helped making lanterns in the family. “My daughter got married in 2010. Since then, she has been busy with the housework, so she couldn’t help us any more,” said Lin.
When mentioning his son, a smile appeared on Chen Baohua’s face. His son is now a surgeon working in Foshan with stable income. “I am so happy that my son can work in a hospital; he will have a promising future!” Chen said.
“I won’t stop making lanterns till I am too old to do it, but I am not thinking about teaching my son this skill, nor did he want to learn it,” he said. The 67-year-old father strongly holds the view that being a surgeon is surely better than making lanterns.
Walking down the country road，there’s another lantern maker called Chen Zhoumao. “There were only few families not earning their living by making lanterns in our village in the past, while there are only several families here still doing it,” said Chen Zhoumao.
Those who are still making lanterns in Longdu are in their middle age or old age. “Young people are not willing to learn it, for it’s hard and less profitable,” Chen Zhoumao said.
Chen Zhoumao is now in his sixties. He experienced “The Cultural Revolution”, which called on the whole country to purge the “decadent” elements of Chinese society like traditional handicrafts and antiques, according to A Concise History Reader of the People’s Republic of China.
During that period of time, activities about traditional culture were forbidden, and the radicals destroyed cultural products. Chen Zhoumao said he liked making lanterns when he was a child. Even during “The Cultural Revolution”, when making lantern was not allowed, he still secretly made lanterns for fun at home. “But I couldn’t let others know I was doing it, or I would be in trouble. I locked myself at home every time when I made lanterns,” Chen said.
Now, China is taking action to protect these traditional handicraft industries. The Chinese traditional technology revitalization plan was approved and issued by the State Council on 12 March 2017, clarifying the significance, general requirements, main tasks and protection measures of revitalization of Chinese traditional crafts in the next few years. However, the specific measures to protect the intangible cultural heritage like lanterns making haven’t been enacted.
Chen Baohua said though the media has drawn some attention to lantern making in Longdu, it’s not enough. In twenty years, it might encounter the danger of extinction because seldom young people are interested in learning the skills. “It will be a pity,” Chen Baohua said.