Though Shanghai is decked with round lanterns, they are not the authentic elongated southern lanterns that originated in the Hangzhou area. Those lanterns are handcrafted of bamboo and shaped like cylinders -- but time-consuming lantern-making is a dying craft, writes Yao Minji.
During traditional festivals like the Chinese New Year, the Lantern Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival, red lanterns are hung along streets, in parks, department stores and restaurants to add to the ambiance of happiness.
However, even many locals don't realize that the round lanterns they see in Shanghai are in fact northern-style, the same type that Zhang Yimou used in his famous film "Raise the Red Lantern." And regional southern-style lanterns used in the royal court of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) are disappearing.
The difference is that the authentic southern lanterns are handcrafted of bamboo; they are often cylindrical and can take many shapes. Making lanterns was an ancient craft, and not all of them were red.
Modern lanterns are mass-produced, many are round, with a wire frame covered with synthetic fabric.
"I'm already over 80. My son doesn't want to learn the craft of making lanterns and I have no apprentices. I guess nobody will carry on my craft after I die," says Yu Zaolei, a southern lantern expert. He was invited to Shanghai from Hangzhou, capital city of neighboring Zhejiang Province, for a Lantern Festival celebration organized by East Dawning and the Oriental Morning Post.
The southern-style lanterns are also known as the Xixing lanterns, named after the neighborhood, specially known for making lanterns in ancient times.
Compared with the common round lanterns of wire that are mass produced today, the Xixing lanterns are still completely handmade from flexible bamboo threads, easy to shape yet difficult to make.
The lantern makers first decide the width of the bamboo according to the type of lantern to be made. Then different pieces, sometimes soaked in water to make them pliable, are woven together to make the shell or framework of the lantern - this is much more difficult than working with a metal framework.
(Shanghai Daily March 9, 2007)