While Chinese New Year tends to get all the attention, one of the more subtle and beguiling celebratory days in the Chinese calendar is the annual Sky Lantern Festival. In a blaze of luminous glory, 100,000 to 200,000 hot air balloons emblazon a full moonlit sky. Although the holiday is celebrated all across Asia, nowhere in the world is it more recognized than Pingxi, a remote mountain town an hour-long drive from Taipei. As each year passes on the lunar calendar, people gather by the tens of thousands in the Pingxi District of New Tapei City to write their dreams and desires on lanterns and then release them into the sky. Over 100,000 lanterns ranging in size, shape and color are lit, and visitors are more than welcome to contribute their own lantern to the glowing swarm.
Tradition has it that the “sky lantern” was invented during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-265) by Zhuge Liang. At first it was used to transmit military information, different from beacon towers yet ingeniously serving the same function, and is now generally recognized as the earliest ancestor to the hot air balloon. In the early 19th century the Lantern Festival was brought to Taiwan, where every year, at the beginning of the spring planting season, people would release “sky lanterns” into the air as a prayer for the coming year. Because in olden times marriage was for the purpose of “adding a son” and increasing manpower, people went to the temple to pray for blessings and released sky lanterns on which they had written things like “May a son soon be born.” and “May the harvests be bountiful.” Sky lanterns were released to follow the wind, rising up to the ancestors to report that all was well and to pray for blessings. Slowly this evolved to become a local event for the Yuanxiao Festival in the Pingxi area. Through many, many years of changes, the one thing that never changed was the reflected lives and hopes of the people as the sky lanterns slowly rose aloft. For many years the “Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival” has had a brilliant history. In addition to enjoying its reputation as part of the traditional description of this Yuanxiao or Lantern Festival in Taiwan—“Sky lanterns in the north, beehive fireworks in the south.”—the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival was voted by the Discovery Channel as the second biggest New Year’s Eve celebration in the world, a festival whose sky lanterns carry the prayers and vows of the people and by which they seek the purification of their souls, a festival that advertises the Taiwan spirit to the world.
In addition to the folk performances, lantern riddle contests, and street folk carnivals that are organized every year, the sky lanterns carrying prayers aloft remain the focal point of the entire event. The lanterns are lit, hopes slowly rise, and the flames of prayer dance in the air as the lanterns magically transform into wings of hope and desire, turning the night sky of this mountain town into an expanse of unimaginable beauty. The visual enjoyment of his fantastic and magnificent sight transcends cultural barriers so when festival time arrives each year, Pingxi is always overwhelmed with visitors. The sight of sky lanterns with their lights rising slowing into the sky is for many Taiwanese a beautiful memory and the beginning of happiness and dreams.