This history of lantern is very long. According to the folk customs, lantern show is also referred to as lantern festival, which is a major traditional event very popular among Chinese people. Lantern art is a comprehensive art of decoration, and the lantern show is born out of the development from people using fire, inventing lantern and making lanterns. Suiren discovered that fire could be made by drilling the wood. Since then fires were started, torches lit, and they served as the origin of lanterns.
Folk lantern festivals developed as the productivity developed. Animal fats, vegetable oil and mineral oil were used for lighting. Rites of Zhou wrote whenever there were major national events, candles were used, which means as early as Zhou Dynasty candles were invented in China. In the warring period, lantern-making techniques underwent great progresses, which was reflected in Qu Yuan’s Songs of Chu. Han Dynasty was the prime time for bronze lanterns, as Miscellanea of the Western Capital went when Han Emperor Liu Bang claimed his crown, there was a black jade lantern with five branches, of seven and a half Chi tall in the palace. The lantern posts were hornless dragons with mouth holding the lantern. When the candles in the lantern burned, the scales of the dragons were in motion, sparkling as stars in the sky. In Tang Dynasty, lantern festival became a ritual event for the Lantern Festival. As depicted in some books, there were towering lantern wheels of 20 Zhang height, decorated with silk, silver and gold, on which 50,000 lanterns illuminating like a giant lantern tree. After Tang Dynasty, lantern events were quite popular. In Song Dynasty, lanterns developed to its peak with different shapes and themes, which was proved by sentences from Reminiscences of the Eastern Capital: grand lanterns were made in Bianjing (now Kaifeng) which featured Samantabhadra and Manjusri riding lions and elephants.
When it comes the history of Chinese lanterns, Zigong lantern festival cannot be left out since it enjoys long history. In Song Dynasty (1174 AD) the great poet Lu You, the then magistrate of Rong county, wrote “a new year is coming, a time for lanterns again”, and according to Rong county’s County Annals, spring festival lantern shows were the grandest in Rong county … Pavilions were erected, decorated with colorful paintings, calligraphies and 400 to 500 lanterns on each pavilion. When the lanterns were all lighted, the scene was dazzlingly breathtaking. Foreign viewers also amazed at the scene, which was also absent even in the capital city. Originally the lantern festivals in Zigong region was organized by temples because in solar terms, red lanterns were lit, crackers were fired and fireworks were set off to attract believers to the temples to make donations and pray for fortune and happiness.
According to materials in late Qing Dynasty, there were as many as 1208 temples in Zigong, including the renowned Buddha Temple in Rong county, Holy Fruit Temple in Fushun county, Laiya Temple, Lingying Temple and more. These are all evidence to the widespread Zigong folk lantern events.
In Ming and Qing Dynasties, lantern events are of special popularity with more forms, types and different scales. Sending river lanterns, performing cattle lantern and lion lanterns dance, and setting off Kongming Lanterns are all typical lantern activities in this historical period. This was also a prevailing folk custom of lighting red lanterns for the God of Kitchen. On the eve of the last day of the year (the 30th day of the 12th Lunar month) almost every household, even the poorest would hang red paper lanterns in front of their houses. Some better-off families would hang rectangle or hexagon palace lanterns and rich ones would hang big gauze red lanterns to show respect to the God of Kitchen.
The most well received lanterns were palace lanterns and gauze lanterns, which were with rich themes and intricately designed with bamboo sticks as the frame, red silk, cloth or paper as the coat. The palace lanterns and gauze lanterns hung in the hall and over the door in rich families were very delicate in making. Some were decorated with gold or jade, some with colorful tassels and some with poems and calligraphies. The gauze lanterns were in oval shape. They could be hung overhead or be held in hand. At that time, gauze lanterns had wider applications thus in dragon lantern or lion lantern dances, and juggling, gauze lanterns were frequently seen.
In the lantern activities in Zigong, dragon lantern performances were a commonplace. The lanterns were lit on the first day of the first lunar month and shut on the 16th day.
Dragon lantern performances might involve cloth dragon lanterns, big dragon lanterns, grass dragon lanterns or bench dragon lanterns. Cloth dragon lanterns, usually with 12 to 13 people forming a dragon, would perform martial arts or riddles. The big dragon lanterns were formed by 15 sections. Lanterns could be lit within each section. The head of the dragon weighed over 15 kilograms. When performing, each section was held by one member and waved in Z or S pattern. When the lantern lights in the sections connect, the picture was marvelous. Grass dragon lanterns were made with grasses grown in Zigong. The performance was vividly carried out by five to seven people. Bench dragon lanterns were usually performed by brothers with two benches one end tied the dragon head and the other the dragon tail.
Lion lantern dance also had a long history in Zigong region. The performers were called groups, who were usually formed by members in a family and passed down to the next generation. They not only could dance but also stunts like somersaults, jumping through the fire rings and climbing the tall pole. The performances were funny to watch therefore the shows sometimes lasted for a week or even longer. Lion lantern dances were quite influential in the southern part of Sichuan.
Cattle lantern dances were popular in countryside of Sichuan. The one played as the cowherd boy would held a red lantern and acted guiding the cattle, riding the cattle, teasing the cattle, feeding the cattle and caressing the cattle, and the one who acted as the cattle would perform grass-eating, water-drinking and hopping as directed by the lantern in the hand of the cowherd boy. The dance was interesting and lively, which made it a common performance for not only spring festivals but also weddings, funerals, harvests and sowing.
In late Qing Dynasty and Republic of China, lantern activities were even richer and more colorful.
The customs of lantern-viewing and lantern-making were passed down from generation to generation, and this is the early form of Zigong Lantern Festival.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, lantern art was developed to a greater extent. With the advance of technology, Zigong lantern festivals have seen more innovations where the traditional lantern-making techniques were combined with modern developments in electronics, manufacturing, mechanics, remote control, sound effect, optical fiber. These new techniques integrate shape, color, light, sound and motion as an organic whole incorporating ideas, knowledge, fun and art and bring new glamour out of the time-honored art of Zigong lantern festivals.