A Brief History
On September 15, 2021, we took a ride through the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo to enjoy the annual Asian Lantern Festival. Available as a walk through or a ride through (in your car), this colorful homage to the Asian Lantern Festival tradition is currently in its 4th year at the Cleveland Zoo, an indication of its popularity. Far from merely a bunch of colorful lanterns, the numerous decorations grouped into 70 displays include all sorts of animatronic flowers and animals as well. Zoo visitors may tour the exhibit either during daylight or in time of darkness when the decorations are brilliantly lit. (Electric lights are used instead of the traditional candles.) Live shows are also part of certain tours. Incredibly, the Lantern Festival tradition goes back to the Han Dynasty of China about 2,000 years ago.
The roots of the tradition may have something to do with brightening up the dreariness of Winter in anticipation of the coming of Spring. The Lantern Festival also has religious (Buddhist) implications. Reportedly, Han Emperor Ming (r. 57–75 AD), a proponent of Buddhism, became inspired by Buddhist monks’ lighting of lanterns. Thus, the emperor ordered that others throughout the Han Chinese Empire should also light lanterns on the evening of the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. The festival concludes the Chinese New Year celebrations, and originally only emperors and high ranking officials could afford to display ornate and large decorative lanterns. As time went on, regular folk got in on the act and the annual festival took on epic proportions of a myriad of colorful paper lanterns and decorations throughout the land. Although the Chinese Empire may have fallen, this ancient tradition nevertheless survives on an international scale as a lasting influence of Chinese culture on the wider world.
Another Asian Lantern Festival known as the Moon Festival, or the Mid-Autumn Festival, is celebrated in other various Asian countries and likewise includes the display of all sorts of decorative lanterns and figures. This colorful tradition has also made its way into Western countries, and Lantern Festivals can be found in many places in the United States under various names, and even in London, England where it is known as the Magical Lantern Festival.
Having now experienced a wonderful trip through an Asian Lantern Festival display, we intend to make such trip an annual tradition!
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been to an Asian Lantern Festival? If so, where and when? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Tang, Sammu. Celebrating the Lantern Festival. Shanghai Press, 2010.
Tang, Sammu. Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. Shanghai Press, 2010.
The featured image in this article is a photograph taken by Dr. Zar in Cleveland, Ohio on September 15, 2021.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.