By Jake Howry, Research Intern, East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at Georgetown University.
Note: this article originally appeared in the East-West Center’s Asia Matters for America/America Matters for Asia initiative on November 22, 2017.
Chinese lantern festivals date back to at least the Western Han Dynasty in 206 B.C.E. and with many different stories of the festival’s origins. Today, lantern festivals have become a pervasive image of Chinese culture, attracting millions of tourists around the world with major celebrations in New York, Cape Town, South Africa, and Sydney, Australia.
On October 29th, the lights on 50 lantern sculptures spread across 10 acres of Wisconsin’s Boerner Botanical Gardens went out as the China Lights Wisconsin cultural celebration came to a close. Simultaneously, in Albuquerque, another 30 unique, handcrafted sculptures went up as a part of the first New Mexico Chinese Lantern Festival, a cultural festival that also features a trade show of traditional Chinese crafts; exhibitions of contortion and plate spinning; and performances of Uygur, Mongolian, and Tibetan dance. Before the end of November, similar events will be underway in Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina. All of these events are the work of a single company: Tianyu Arts & Culture, Inc. Tianyu is the American arm of industrial design company Sichuan Tianyu headquartered in Zigong, China, perhaps most familiar to Americans as the design team behind several set pieces for the James Bond film Skyfall. Although lantern festivals are most closely associated with the Chinese New Year, Tianyu hosts events throughout the year.
Because Tianyu Arts & Culture aims to promote cultural communication between China and the United States, each festival’s design incorporates specific landmarks and symbols unique to that location, recreating local iconography through handcrafted Chinese arts. A recent festival in Atlanta, for instance, included a series of Peach Tree lanterns to symbolize the Georgia state fruit in addition to more traditional lanterns from Chinese culture.
Cary, North Carolina, which will hold its third annual lantern festival this year, reports that the Tianyu lanterns have had a tremendous economic and cultural impact on the region. The festival grossed more than a million dollars and attendance between the first and second years rose by nearly 58%. The town also credits the cultural festival for the venue’s first budget surplus.