Chinese red lanterns have a long history, and they have become a well-known symbol of China Towns worldwide. They started out as a practicality and evolved into elaborate status symbols, literally riddled with mystery.
The most common Chinese lanterns are red, oval shape, and decorated with red or golden tassels, but they come in many forms; another usual style is a square lantern.
The materials for making a lantern vary: bamboo, wood, rattan, or steel wire for the frame; paper or silk for the shade; and for decoration Chinese calligraphy, painting, paper cutting, and embroidery.
The Chinese lantern originated as an improvement for the open flame. The shade not only protects the flame inside from being extinguished in windy weather, but also provides a more diffuse form of lighting.
It was inevitable that the lantern shade would become the object of artistic expression, given the Chinese penchant for embellishment. It also underwent extensive design experimentation: lamp-shade artisans competed amongst themselves to produce lamp shades of exquisite beauty, functionality, design, and artistic decoration.
Just as in the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro, where contestants compete each year to create the most impressive costume, participants in the ancient Lantern Festivals competed each year in producing the most impressive lantern.
The difference is that the best lantern designs in China – except for those reserved for the Imperial Palace – became public property: they were copied by every lamp-shade artisan throughout the country.
The emperor himself had the best lamp-shade artisans in the empire work for him; such recognition was naturally the supreme honor.
While the earliest Chinese lanterns were created for practical use in the house and as entrance-way lighting, they eventually became highly ornamental, and a status symbol.
This is evident from how the red lanterns are extensively used in Qiao Family's Compound, built in the Qing Dynasty, as well as at the gates to the Siheyuan housing compounds, typical of Beijing, but also seen elsewhere in China.
It was also quickly discovered that the lantern made an excellent "flashlight", or portable light.
Some historical experts believe that the concept of street lighting in Europe stems from European contact with Imperial China, where "street lighting" had long existed in the form of the Chinese lanterns hanging on doors and gateways.
Typical for ancient Chinese society was its penchant for grand celebrations. One such celebration is the Lantern Festival, aka Little New Year, so named because it is the culmination of the Chinese New Year festival.
Ancient Chinese celebrations always contained an element of reference to other artistic genres, such as the fine art of calligraphy, or literature.
For example, a famous poet might compose a poem recognizing the artistic achievement of the artists/ artisans. Occasionally the fame of such a poem would eventually completely overshadow the fame of the subject of the poem.
Guessing the meaning of lantern riddles has been a unique folk custom during the Lantern Festival since ancient times.
In ancient China, every family hung colorful lanterns at the gate. Some wrote riddles on pieces of paper, and attached them on the lanterns. The answer had to be guessed from a word, a poem, or a phrase.
Because the riddles are interesting and thought-provoking, and guessing lantern riddles makes the festival more interactive and lively, it has remained an essential activity during the Chinese Lantern Festival.
Although there is no longer a practical need for Chinese lanterns, they are still made, used, and enjoyed by the Chinese people. They continue to be a means of artistic expression, both in terms of functionality, design, and decoration.