Across China: Centuries-old lantern tradition still burning brightly in Gansu
LANZHOU, Feb. 5 (Xinhua) -- Holding a lantern in his hand, 51-year-old Jiao Wenjie stepped onto the stage, clad in golden armor, like a proud soldier in ancient China. He was here to light the meandering array of lanterns adorning his hometown in China's Gansu Province, a traditional cultural event on the eve of the Lantern Festival, which falls on Sunday this year.
As Jiao and other performers intoned prayers for a blessed new year, the winding array of golden lights took on the shape of a large square maze. Gongs and drums were beaten, and the flock of tourists was allowed to file into the lantern maze and guess the riddles planted there.
The Jiuqu Yellow River Lantern Array, which takes place annually in Ganzhou District, in the city of Zhangye, is centuries old. In 2012, it was listed as an item of intangible cultural heritage for Gansu Province.
"My father always says to me that the completion of the lantern ceremony symbolizes the beginning of a good new year," said Jiao, a third-generation inheritor of this cultural tradition.
The Jiuqu Yellow River Lantern Array consists of 365 lanterns arranged according to the Nine Palaces and the Eight Trigrams Formation, which was used for divination in ancient China. In the past, people believed that walking around the lantern array would bring them a good harvest and a better life in the coming year.
The custom was introduced to Ganzhou from the Yellow River basin as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Passing down from generation to generation, it has become a local ritual to celebrate the Lantern Festival.
During the final 10 days before the Lantern Festival, all villagers in Gucheng Village in Ganzhou, where Jiao hails from, gather together to make paper lanterns. As a child, Jiao used to follow his father to find the spot where the lantern maze would be located, define its range, and set up the 365 poles on which to hang the lanterns.
In his thirties, Jiao began to fully shoulder the responsibility of passing on the heritage. However, unlike his father's generation, who tended to follow ancient traditions closely, Jiao is keen on making innovations.
In the first year that Jiao led the ceremony, he used iron wire instead of traditional wicker to build the lantern skeleton and replaced the colored paper on the lanterns with flex banners printed with scenes from classic Chinese novels.
Jiao's debut was a hit, drawing more visitors to see his "comic lanterns." Since then, he has often racked his brain for new ways to decorate the maze and has tried various shapes of lantern.
"As an inheritor of this tradition, I must ensure that more people see and come to love our array of lamps," explained Jiao.
In 2018, the local government initiated a project to build a scenic spot themed on the lantern array, aiming to support the inheritance, protection and utilization of the tradition. The new lantern array now covers an area of 10 hectares, with the tourist trail alone stretching 2.4 km.
Besides the traditional lanterns, the scenic spot integrates the lantern array with modern light settings and sound technologies like laser lamps and computer lights. Other recreational activities like firework shows, live-action drama and Chinese puppet shows are also on offer, providing a comprehensive cultural feast for the public, according to Wang Wei, who is in charge of the Zhangye Wulan ancient town scenic spot.
Such a combination of modern and ancient has won the hearts of tourists, with the maximum daily number of tourists exceeding 80,000, Wang added.
Ding Qian, 42, has taken her 10-year-old daughter, Fan Shuyao, to visit the lantern maze several times.
Ding said the maze includes various elements of traditional Chinese culture, such as the zodiac animals, cultural celebrities, ancient poetry and lantern riddles. All the cultural elements on the lanterns and the surrounding walls have greatly aroused the curiosity of her daughter.
"Now I can figure out the answer to more than half of the lantern riddles," said Fan, brimming with confidence.
Jin Wei, director of the district's intangible cultural heritage protection center, said the combination of such elements will help rejuvenate the traditional culture, adding new charm and injecting a new impetus into folk history and culture.
These days, Jiao also participates in the scenic spot's live-action dramas. He said he is happy to see the lantern array remain lit beyond the traditional time frame, attracting more and more visitors.