“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.

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Cheng Baohua is cutting bamboo 摄影:蔡馥瑜

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.

Lanterns with family names written on it

Lanterns with family names written on it 摄影:蔡馥瑜

        In different regions, the customs vary. An article The functions of lanterns in the Chaoshan area written by the director of Guangdong folk literature and Art Association Yin Zhenkai, introduces that in Chenghai and Raoping, newly-married couples will light up lanterns on the 15th day of the first lunar month with the fire in temples, praying for a son. In Chao’an, every family must send the male host to the temples to light up lanterns on New Year’s Eve. In Jieyang, Chaoyang and Shantou, people used to write down their blessings for the family on the lanterns and hang them on the front doors. In the Chaoshan area, people also call this traditional skill as “writing lantern”.
Chen Baohua is weaving a lantern in front of his house

Chen Baohua is weaving a lantern in front of his house  摄影:蔡馥瑜

        Chen started learning making lanterns from his father when he was 26 years old. Chen called himself the son of a “lantern family”. He is the fourth generation in his family engaged in the production of lanterns. However, his son didn’t inherit his skills and he may be the last generation in lantern making in his family.
Many unfinished lanterns are piled up in the storage room in Chen Baohua’s home 

Many unfinished lanterns are piled up in the storage room in Chen Baohua’s home  摄影:蔡馥瑜

 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.

Lin Hanqing bent the bamboo with fire to make lantern handles

Lin Hanqing bent the bamboo with fire to make lantern handles 摄影:蔡馥瑜

 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 is weaving bamboo to make a lantern

Chen is weaving bamboo to make a lantern 摄影:蔡馥瑜

        Bamboo is the main material in lantern-making. In China, woven bamboo arts and crafts come in a wide variety, including toy animals, lanterns, flower baskets, trays, tea boxes, and curtains. Bamboo weaving is popular in Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan, Sichuan and Anhui as well as Zhejiang, which has a history of bamboo weaving going back more than 2,000 years, according to China Pictorial Magazine. In Chaoshan dialect, the pronunciation of “bamboo” is the same as “De”, meaning virtue or moral character. That’s why people prefer to choose it to make lanterns, according to Chen.Lantern making combines a set of skills. According to Chen, each lantern needs to go through the procedures of cutting bamboo, knitting lantern frame with bamboo, pasting paper on the frame, smearing Tung oil, drying out in the air, and crucially, writing characters on the lanterns.
Chen Baohua is writing a family name in the lantern for his customer

Chen Baohua is writing a family name in the lantern for his customer 摄影:蔡馥瑜

 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.

文字|蔡馥瑜 高璇

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