A dramatic and colourful tradition of ancient China is coming to the centre of Edinburgh
During last year's Burns&Beyond celebrations, St Giles' Cathedral on Edinburgh's Royal Mile was dominated by a huge moon. Luke Jerram's globetrotting Museum of the Moon installation transformed the cathedral's atmosphere and produced a dramatic backdrop for a programme of entertainment. This time, with the festival connected to the Chinese New Year, the building will be busy with a colourful expression of national and cultural pride and centuries-old tradition.
There are various suggestions about the exact origins of Chinese lanterns and how long they have been around for, but Ping Zhang, the Chinese Co-Director at Heriot-Watt University's Scottish Confucius Institute for Business and Communication, places their genesis at around 200 AD, back in the times of the Eastern Han dynasty.
'Buddhist monks would light the lanterns on the 15th day of the lunar New Year in honour of the Buddha,' says Ping. 'In ancient China, lanterns were used to provide light and then act as aspects of Buddhist worship. Today they are only used as decoration and in celebrations. All the lanterns are in the colours of red and gold because red in China is a symbol of happiness and gold is the symbol of wealth; so you can see all the lanterns are decorated by some gold stripes on the surface. The shape of a lantern is usually round which indicates a time of family reunion during the Chinese New Year.'
There are three main types of lantern in China. The most well-known is the hanging lanterns which are seen in many public places and in people's homes: these will be the ones you'll see in St Giles. The second type is the flying lantern which are propelled by hot air produced by the flame inside and are released to the sky on special occasions. And lastly, the floating lanterns are set adrift along rivers during festivals.
'My favourite is the floating lantern,' says Ping. 'They are quite easy to make as you can produce a paper boat and can light a candle and then set it adrift on the river or lake or pond as a means of delivering some of your wishes. When I was very young I would do that and it's still very popular among the children of China.'
Floating lanterns are especially popular in the south of China while the flying lanterns make their presence known during the mid-autumn festival when the sky is at its clearest. For Chinese New Year, hanging lanterns are the priority and some 400 of them will help produce a colourful canopy within St Giles' Cathedral, bringing a little bit of ancient China into the heart of Edinburgh.
Chinese Lanterns at St Giles' Cathedral, Wednesday 22 January–Saturday 1 February. Burns&Beyond, various venues, Edinburgh, Tuesday 21 January–Sunday 9 February.
Burns&Beyond with Johnnie Walker returns to celebrate the life and legacy of Robert Burns through traditional and contemporary art and culture from across Scotland and beyond. The 2021 free online programme includes KT Tunstall, Aidan O’Rourke, Rachel Sermanni, Aidan Moffat, Kinnaris and more.