Mon, Mar 04, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Lantern festivals are for culture, not cash

By Ou Wei-chun 歐瑋群

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when it started, but at some point the Lantern Festival turned into a contest between Taiwan’s cities and counties to outdo each other with increasingly extravagant celebrations. This year the war of words over the festival has been particularly intense, even turning into a debate about aesthetics.

Having frequented several lantern festivals, as well as spaces decorated with traditional illuminated paper lanterns, the greatest change over the past few years has been the inclusion of spaces featuring diverse and artistic displays of decorative lanterns designed to blend in with the landscape.

Themed areas and artistic performances have also been added into the mix. This is the reason why the Kaohsiung Lantern Festival, where this year’s main attraction was a consumer oriented night market, sparked such fierce debate.

It is somewhat ironic that Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) is on record as having said: “In a city full of resourceful people all striving to make own their small fortune, its culture will gradually change and could become vulgar and centered around money worship. We do not want this.”

Unfortunately, faced with public criticism, Kaohsiung officials tried to palm off their “lotus flower” lanterns debacle by saying they symbolize “religion,” and thanks to Kaohsiung Tourism Bureau Director Pan Heng-hsu (潘恆旭), the city’s festival has been compared to the Phoo Tse and Yuejin lantern festivals in Tainan.

However, an aesthetic comparison is superficial, because the Phoo Tse and Yuejin festivals are rich in meaning, suffused with the collective energy of their local communities and diplomacy. Paper lanterns hand-decorated by residents are displayed at temples, where visitors can receive blessings. The festivals have also for two successive years partnered with the Festival of the Lights in Osaka, Japan.

Borne out of the regeneration of a riverside area, the Yuejin Lantern Festival brings a fresh cultural dimension to Yanshuei District (鹽水), already famous for its Beehive Fireworks Festival.

The Yuejin festival also shares ties with the Kyoto Higashiyama Hanatouro in Kyoto, Japan, and several other international groups have proposed similar exchanges.

These cultural and creative aspects, in addition to religious elements, are what make the festivals such grand occasions.

Anyone who walked into the Dapeng Bay (大鵬灣) area of this year’s Taiwan Lantern Festival in Pingtung County would not only be struck by the lively festive atmosphere, but also be transported to a surrealist fantasy world, described by one foreign journalist as Disneyland without the roller coaster.

Walking beneath strings of auspicious lanterns reimagined as wax apples — one of the county’s famed agricultural products — one can catch a glimpse of the festival’s main lantern: a black tuna.

It is certainly a far cry from the basic red lanterns and 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac lanterns of festivals of bygone years.

Even more commendable was the festival’s “themed lantern” — a sea goddess made by new citizens from local oyster shells and decorated on the inside with traditional Southeast Asian maze patterns. It was a wonderful display of the cultures of the nation’s new female citizens, who are putting down roots in Taiwan.

The essence of genuine creativity is in these small details and the exploration of cultural themes that combine art and culture with local characteristics. While it might not be considered a high art form, it is nevertheless a world away from the vulgar hawking of goods masquerading as “culture.”

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