The Sky Lanterns of Pingxi

Once a year, the quiet little valley of Pingxi (平溪) is abuzz with festive spirit as glowing orbs light up the night sky. While Lantern Festivals elsewhere in Taiwan often meant spectacular exhibits of modern pyrotechnics and live concerts, the most popular light event to welcome the Lunar New Year is still based on the humble floating lantern known as tian deng (天燈), in a little county just a small distance away from Taipei.

As a new resident to Taiwan, I of course wanted to see the spectacle as I have heard that lanterns are released en masse, much like a real-life version of Disney’s Tangled (though without the water scene and the corny duet).  Together with my new friends, we made our way along the busy highways to the towns of Shifen (十分) and Jingtong (菁桐) to join in on the New Year’s celebrations. Upon arrival I was completely taken aback at how crowded the place was. Much like a night market, there were food stores and entertainment aplenty but it seemed doubly busy in an older town setting. Couples, families and groups of friends gathered along the train tracks to release the lanterns – though why I have yet to discover because trains do still run along them, making people scatter frantically whenever one arrives.

Lanterns are released sporatically as well as en masse at certain times
Lanterns are released sporadically as well as en masse at certain times

The sky lanterns are made of waxed paper weighed down by a small tray for coal or other combustible elements.  Akin to a hot air balloon, the lantern will naturally float once the hot air rises and fills the paper chamber.  This age-old custom of sending lanterns to the sky could be traced back to China’s Three Kingdoms period when they were first used as military signals.  For Pingxi specifically, once a sleepy farming settlement which drew the unwanted attention of bandits, sky lanterns were used to warn villagers of imminent danger, and to notify them when it was safe to return to their homes.  Sky lanterns have since been known as a symbol of peace, but for the musing of modern crowds, it is synonymously associated with making wishes come true.

A quainter impression of Pingxi
A quainter impression of Pingxi
"Safety and Health" Our wish for the family
“Safety and Health”
Our wish for the family

To do this, write your wish on the lantern’s paper.  Plenty of lantern vendors will have this organised for you with Chinese calligraphy brushes and black ink and you will have the liberty to choose the colour of your lantern.  Each colour has a special meaning, and Ivan and I chose a white lantern to wish our family good health.

Once you have done this, you may take the yet to be inflated lantern to the train tracks to be ignited and ready for its release. As our lantern made its way to the night sky along with the throng of others,  I repeated my wish and hoped that my lantern has a safe journey (as I have seen many end up tragically in someone’s vegetable garden or the nearby river).

We were also fortunately able to join the collective launch of the lanterns in Jingtong. It felt special to be one with the crowd as we anticipated the release of the sky lanterns, and with it, make wishes for the new year ahead.

Lanterns of Jingtong on 21 February 2015
Lanterns of Jingtong on 21 February 2015

When:  This is an annual event occurring during Lunar New Year, which differs every year. Check the New Taipei City Government Website for updates

Where: There are several locations where you can join in on the festivities –  Shifen Sky Lantern Square, Pingxi Junior High School, and Jingtong Elementary School

Getting There: Roads closer to Pingxi are usually closed to private vehicles during the event. It is best to catch the public buses from Muzha MRT ( 木柵) though lines can be very long, so come prepared.  To travel between towns, you can catch the regional Pingxi train (平溪線).

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