Lantern display at Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai.

China's last remaining lantern craftspeople uphold a waning tradition

There aren't very many traditional lantern makers left in Shanghai. They're being replaced by technology creating mass-produced versions. But some people are still trying to keep the culture alive.

The World

Lantern display at Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai.


 

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

Sixty-five-year-old Li Jianguo grew up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution. He remembers not always having enough to eat when he was young and having to drop out of school. Yet, his happiest memories as a child were during the Lunar New Year.

“That was when we had new clothes to wear and good food to eat,” he said. “After dinner, [we] kids would run outside and play with our lanterns in the alleyways.”

In China, the tradition of children playing with handmade paper lanterns during the Lunar New Year has been passed down for generations. During Lantern Festival, the last day of Lunar New Year celebrations, families gather for a meal of dumplings and light lanterns together. In Shanghai, lanterns shaped like rabbits were popular.

Today, most lanterns are manufactured, but when Li was a boy, everyone had simple bamboo and paper ones. His was made by his father who learned from his own father. It was lit by a candle and had four wooden wheels and a string to pull it along.

Lanterns for sale at Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai.

Lanterns for sale at Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai.


 

Credit:

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

“If the rabbit fell over, the candle inside would burn up the lantern. The other kids would laugh at you, but it was also considered good luck...”

Li Jianguo, traditional latern maker in Shanghai

“At the time, the streets in Shanghai weren’t well-paved and our rabbit lanterns would bump along behind us as we ran,” he said. “If the rabbit fell over, the candle inside would burn up the lantern. The other kids would laugh at you, but it was also considered good luck — like you burned up all your bad luck and could start fresh in the new year.”

Related: In China, jump roping is a popular competitive sport. Skill level also affects kids' grades.

These days, Li doesn’t play with lanterns anymore. He makes them. Li is one of the last remaining lantern craftspeople in Shanghai. His cramped apartment is covered floor to ceiling with paper lanterns shaped like rabbits, dragons and lotus flowers. He and his wife spend the entire year making 600 lanterns to sell during the 15 days of the Lunar New Year. Sometimes, he’s so busy, he said, that he doesn’t have time to sit down for a meal.

Li Jianguo making a rabbit lantern in his home workshop.

Li Jianguo making a rabbit lantern in his home workshop.

Credit:

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

“This isn’t the busiest time of the year for me. Every day, I’m busy,” Li said. “If I don’t keep up the pace during the year, when it comes time to sell my lanterns, people will be disappointed if I run out too fast. I always sell out.”

Li demonstrated how to make a rabbit lantern. It takes 60 intricate steps to build the bamboo frame and decorate each one — a nearly six-hour process that he learned from watching his father. Each sells for $15. His rabbit lanterns range from being small enough to hang from a cellphone to ones as big as a piñata.

Related: China's Arctic ambitions have revived US interest in the region

Craftspeople like Li are disappearing, though, in a rapidly modernizing Shanghai.

Zhou Qi is the author of a book featuring 60 of Shanghai’s remaining craftspeople. Over the course of eight years, she searched out artisans who make everything from handspun cloth to woven bamboo shopping baskets to hand-stitched cotton shoes.

"But they are more than just things we use, they are also a part of our culture.”

Zhou Qi, author

“They all make everyday things I used as a child growing up here in the '80s,” she said. “But they are more than just things we use, they are also a part of our culture.”

Lanterns for sale at Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai.

 Lanterns for sale at Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai.


 

Credit:

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

Many of the craftspeople in her book are elderly. And they haven’t passed down their skills because there are few people who want to learn these crafts. Zhou said that she found only four lantern makers in Shanghai.

Related: China’s 'vaccine diplomacy' fills void in developing world left by US 'vaccine nationalism'

“Some make very traditional rabbit ones, while others have designed new lanterns with different shapes and materials,” she said.

Li Jianguo’s lanterns for sale in Shanghai.

Li Jianguo’s lanterns for sale in Shanghai.


 

Credit:

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

The craftsmen are tough to find — most of them don’t have a storefront and aren’t on social media.

One place you can find lanterns is at Yu Gardens, in Shanghai’s Old City. Every year at this time, crowds flock here to take photos of the massive lantern displays near the City God Temple.

Rabbit lantern maker Li is here too, but he doesn’t have many buyers. That’s because many people are buying their children cheaper, mass-produced plastic and paper versions instead. And these days, they are lit up by battery-powered light bulbs.

Lantern display at Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai

Lantern display at Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai.


 

Credit:

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

Related: China’s Xi Jinping Thought curricula teaches students how to ‘unmask enemies’ of the state, author says

Li said that he doesn’t make lanterns for the money. He and his wife live off their retirement pension.

“I want my children and grandchildren to have a memory of playing with rabbit lanterns just like I did,”

Li Jianguo, traditional latern maker in Shanghai

“I want my children and grandchildren to have a memory of playing with rabbit lanterns just like I did,” he said.

He likes to see people enjoying his creations.