Published: 10:19, December 14, 2023 | Updated: 16:47, December 15, 2023
Lighting up the world
By Yang Xiaoyu

A crocodile-shaped lantern made by Wan's team on display in Lithuania in 2022. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Shortly after organizing the lantern carnival at the Aldrich Bay Park in Hong Kong on Sept 24, Wan Songtao and his team hurried back to their hometown of Zigong in Sichuan province, where another grand lantern show was on the cards.

"The older I grow, the more attached I become to lantern making. Sometimes I find myself mulling over how to design lanterns in my dreams," the 54-year-old craftsman and entrepreneur tells China Daily.

Early in the morning after landing in Zigong, Wan went to inspect work at Chinese Lantern World, which on Sept 27 was transformed into an ocean of light and color by massive lanterns in the shape of humans, flowers, animals and buildings, made to celebrate both the Mid-Autumn Festival, which fell on Sept 29 this year, and National Day on Oct 1.

"For this lantern fair, we derived inspiration from ancient Chinese poems about Mid-Autumn Festival," Wan says, adding that Tianshang Gongque ("the moon palace"), the centerpiece and one of 21 core lantern installations at the fair, was inspired by Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet Su Dongpo's The Mid-Autumn Festival (Tune: Prelude to Water Melody).

The installation, which was composed of 19 palace-style structures, stretched 270 meters and rose high into the sky, drawing visitors' eyes up to a "full moon", a round LED screen showing Chang'e, goddess of the moon, flying toward her palace.

The eight-day holiday attracted over 210,000 visitors from around China to the remote city, which is known for being home to one of the world's best lantern shows.

Tourists throng the 2023 Zigong International Dinosaur Lantern Festival during the Spring Festival holiday. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Historical roots

In 2008, the Zigong lantern festival was listed as a national-level intangible cultural heritage for its long history, grandeur, innovative designs and ingenious use of materials.

Lantern festivals have traditionally been held in the town during the Lunar New Year to pray for blessings since the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, and flourished during the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), as the city, known for producing salt, became a hub for merchants from all over the country. These deep-pocketed business people sponsored impressive lanterns of novel design during Spring Festival to display their wealth and entertain the workers who drilled for brine.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Zigong became a prosperous industrial city, proud of its salt, machinery making and chemical industries. In 1964, the local government started the annual Lunar New Year Lantern Festival, calling on businesses to design lanterns to be exhibited at a downtown park.

To outshine other exhibitors, enthusiastic workers outdid themselves with their yearly creations. They drew inspiration from Chinese zodiac animals, mythology, and literary classics for their motifs and designs. For materials, they chose silk, fiberglass and light bulbs, as well as more unexpected choices, such as CDs, porcelain tableware and silkworm cocoons.

Wan has made lanterns for over 30 years and specializes in using porcelain, including cups, plates, bowls and spoons, to make lantern sculptures like dragons and elephants, a traditional craft mastered by fewer than a dozen people in the city. In 2015, he was recognized as a city-level inheritor.

"Like every other Zigong native, I have a soft spot for lanterns, but it was my father who piqued my initial interest in lantern making," Wan says.

At college, Wan studied painting, which led him to think about how to integrate his art training, especially modeling and color theory, with lantern design.

After graduation in the late 1980s, he was assigned to work with the publicity department at a State-owned chemical fiber factory. "I often took advantage of public holidays or my annual leave to do lantern-making gigs around the city, and I really enjoyed it," he says.

Lanterns in the shapes of eagles, lions, and objects with a metaverse theme on show in March at Suzhou Amusement Land in Jiangsu province. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The driving force

It was around then that the Zigong lantern industry began to thrive, thanks to the local government's commitment and support.

In 1987, the event was renamed the Zigong International Dinosaur Lantern Festival and Trade Fair, because that year the Zigong Dinosaur Museum opened to exhibit the extensive collection of fossils unearthed in the area. "The festival and trade fair back then not only provided a prime opportunity for local enterprises to invite clients over for lantern appreciation and networking, but also promoted Zigong lanterns nationwide," says Wan, who is also the vice-president of a leading lantern making company in Zigong.

In 1988, Zigong artisans mounted a dragon lantern show in Beihai Park in celebration of Beijing International Tourism Year, drawing many visitors to the 35 lantern installations and 1,200-odd traditional craft lanterns on show.

The phenomenal success of the show in Beijing put the Zigong lantern festival on the map, attracting orders from around the country. This was also the year that local authorities set up a management committee to manage production, trade, promotion, research and training in the lantern industry.

In 1990, a Zigong lantern festival was held in Singapore, marking the first step in the global spread of the Sichuan folk event. To date, the festivals have been held in 500-odd Chinese cities as well as in over 80 countries and regions. In the first half of 2023, Zigong did 40 overseas lantern festival projects, with cultural exports worth $22.52 million, according to a local media report.

As the festive season nears, Zigong is working full throttle to fulfill orders worldwide. For example, it will supply lanterns for the celebrated Shanghai Yuyuan Garden Lantern Show at the Jardin d'Acclimatation, an amusement park in Paris, which runs from Friday to Feb 25, to celebrate significant festivals, including Christmas, New Year's Day, and Spring Festival, and to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and France.

Sixty lantern installations themed on the dragon, the zodiac animal of 2024, and other mythological figures and animals, together with a medley of Chinese folk art performances, will entertain Parisians, says Chen Jia, chief cultural officer of the Shanghai Yuyuan Tourist Mart company.

Zigong's thriving lantern business is considered a fruit of industrialization and collective inheritance, which distinguishes it from other lantern-making centers in the country.

A traditional craft in many parts of China, lantern making is usually passed down from generation to generation in families where techniques are carefully guarded and kept unchanged. But in Zigong, it has developed into an industry employing around 100,000 people and generating more than 5 billion yuan ($683 million) in annual earnings.

Wan Songtao, an inheritor of Zigong lantern making, demonstrates how to tie up porcelain tableware to make a lantern sculpture in Sichuan province. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

According to Wan, the city boasts a complete machinery, electronics and chemical chain, as well as a large number of highly skilled workers trained in mechanical production and installation of machines. Although, as with many workers in the late 1990s, Wan was laid off due to the restructuring of the State-owned sectors during reform and opening-up, like them, he also ended up getting involved in the lantern industry, where skills were needed.

Thanks to enterprising artisans and growing demand, Zigong lantern-making techniques have grown by leaps and bounds over the last three decades. Unlike his father's generation, who laboriously crafted lanterns out of clay and fiberglass, Wan and his fellow artisans have drawn on the lantern-making techniques of Taiwan, and Chaozhou in Guangdong province, where thin bamboo strips are used to make frames. But, as the material doesn't last long, artisans have been replacing bamboo strips with iron wire, which is now the mainstream practice in Zigong.

Over the course of its decadeslong development in the city, lantern making has been standardized in a quest for efficiency.

When tackling a project, designers brainstorm before producing a two-dimensional draft with the aid of graphic design tools. Once the draft has been accepted, they create a 3D construction drawing to scale. According to Wan, this is "a pivotal procedure because designers have to carefully consider the space and structure, as well as decide on the material to ensure the desired effect and give the lantern verve and animation".

The next step is to scale up the drawing on the ground at a 1-to-1 ratio. A welder then makes the frame with iron wire, under the designer's supervision.

As the wires cannot be easily removed once welded, only highly skilled welders can do the job and show a good sense of molding, Wan says.

The finished frame undergoes rust-protection, and electricians bind pliable light tubes to the wires. Then, artisans, who are usually women, cut pieces of cloth using surgical scissors and meticulously glue them to the frame. The lantern is painted, and details, such as eyes and lips, are delineated using an airbrush.

Once all these procedures are done, the lantern is ready to be tested and shipped to the festival site, where it can be installed with the help of the designers.

Lanterns illuminate Zigong's Mid-Autumn Festival, with Tianshang Gongque ("the moon palace") in the background. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Talent training

The city's lantern sector had swelled 60-fold, from 35 companies in 2000 to more than 2,000 companies as of March last year, creating demand for makers.

To this end, the local government commissioned top artisans, including Wan, with compiling a textbook on Zigong lantern making in 2017, the first of its kind in the traditional lantern industry.

In 2018, the city government teamed up with the Sichuan University of Science and Engineering and the Zigong Lantern Group, a conglomerate of local firms, to establish the Chinese Lantern College, an institution for training industry professionals and conducting research and development. In the meantime, 25 work placement centers have been set up at lantern companies to provide hands-on learning opportunities.

To stoke wider interest, the committee of the Zigong International Dinosaur Lantern Festival launched a contest calling on children around the world to submit lantern designs. The winning designs are then made by local craftsmen and exhibited at the festival.

To prevent Zigong lanterns from ending up in glass cases on display, the fate of many heritage items, Wan advocates adopting new technologies and absorbing new ideas and concepts.

Designers got their hands on AI-powered design generation tools at the start of this year, and digital lighting technology has been widely integrated into modern lantern festivals.

"Only passing on the tradition is not enough. We need to continue innovating to keep Zigong lanterns bright, and up to date," Wan emphasizes, adding that he likes going to fashionable areas in cities like Paris and Shanghai to see public sculptures and commercial art displays at department stores to gain inspiration.

Since 2015, his company has also been collaborating with the Lyon Festival of Lights, a four-day annual event in France in December, which is held in honor of the Virgin Mary for saving the city from plague and dates back to the 17th century.

Based on his experience of previous festivals in Lyon, Wan says that compared to French illuminations, which integrate light and music, and keep visitors entranced for hours, Zigong lanterns need artistic enhancement to resonate better with audiences.

Each year, he invites a French light artist to Zigong for deeper exchange, and this year, he introduced the artist to the Chinese Lantern College, which decided to hire the man as a guest professor.

"I am excited to have facilitated this. Even though it is only a beginning, I am looking forward to seeing more breakthroughs in creative design for the lanterns," Wan says.