Open the Lantern

Each year, the spring festival brings about traditions. A lot of craftsmanship is put into a custom, popular in south china, for families and villages to celebrate having a baby boy.

Deep in a small alleyway called Wangwu Street in Guancheng, Uncle Nan and his wife, along with his daughter-in-law, immerse themselves in the repetitive manual work of splitting apart bamboo and sticking together auspicious papers in their dimly lit workshop to make lanterns. Few people in Dongguan are left making this kind of traditional paper artwork. Uncle Nan is one of them. Every year, he needs to produce dozens of 1-meter-long lanterns before the Spring Festival.

In November, several local craftsmen—like Uncle Nan—make the traditional octagonal paper lanterns for the Lantern Opening ceremony, also known as Kai Deng (开灯). It is a unique Spring Festival custom in South China, around Guangdong and Guangxi, and is extremely popular in rural areas. Families who had a baby boy the previous year are supposed to complete a ritual that requires them to hang up this type of lantern in their living room, ancestral hall and other shrines throughout the village.

On the first day of Chinese New Year, they need to “open” the lantern by cutting the lantern on the side with a knife and place a candle or light bulb inside. After the ritual, they usually hold a grand banquet, inviting the whole village to celebrate with them. That’s why locals are often invited to endless banquets during Chinese New Year.

After the ritual, they usually hold a grand banquet, inviting the whole village to celebrate with them.

The lantern placed in the ancestral hall is the biggest one out of all the others in the village, normally bigger than one meter in diameter. Comprised of multiple cubes, each one is covered with a meaningful painting depicting fortunate life events, such as adding a son, achieving outstanding scores on exams or celebrating a long life.

In Chinese culture, there’s probably nothing more important than having a son, which is considered the only way to carry on the family lineage. (Nowadays a girl can carry on the name as well.) It’s no secret that China is a patriarchal society, and traditionally women had little rights or freedom.

The beautiful lanterns and their makings are listed as part of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The most breathtaking and stylish one has a thousand corners. The thousand-angle lantern is as big as a truck with a tiny light on each corner. The Chinese pronunciation of light, deng, is like ding, meaning male offspring, thus, a thousand-angles symbolizes a thousand male offspring.

Another reason for the fame of the thousand-angle lantern is the mysterious legend behind it. It is said that when the Song Dynasty (960-1279) ended, the last emperor’s sister escaped and settled in Dongguan. She married a Dongguan man and when they had a son, she used the 24 belts she carried out of the palace to make the lantern decorations, which depicted the 24 well-known stories of filial piety. She made the lantern every ten years and only passed on the skills to her descents. So, the thousand-angle lantern was exclusive to her family for a long time.

Although this ceremony is widespread in Dongguan, every village has a slightly different custom. For example, in Chashan villagers like to give out clay dolls as a gift to guests, especially children, after the banquet.

There used to be local craftsmen making all kinds of clay figures from Chinese mythology and Cantonese operas. Originally, four real patriotic heroes from the Song Dynasty were made into clay dolls and handed out to children, wishing them to grow up becoming the same kind of people who were devoted to our country.