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February 15, 2019

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Brilliant tradition shines through the ages

Luodian lanterns from northern Shanghai’s Baoshan District will produce perhaps their most sumptuous display ever during this year’s Lantern Festival on Tuesday.

There will be more lanterns than ever, bigger than ever, whirling around and around on mechanical spindles.

Zhu Lingbao, 77 years old, is the last master and sole guardian of the art of making the distinctive lanterns. Impervious to age, he was still climbing up and down the display yesterday, determined that nothing would go wrong on the big night.

Luodian lanterns come in bright colors and many shapes, typically Chinese pavilions, pagodas, dragons, dragon boats and flowers. They have 400 years of history and saw something of a revival in the early 1980s.

Zhu, working at the town’s exhibition hall at the time, was enchanted by a lantern show and decided to learn how to create his own.

Having won top prize in a lantern competition in 1988 with a 1-meter dragon boat, Zhu became quite the Luodian lantern celebrity and was soon invited to make two 10-meter-long lanterns of the same design for a festival in Nanhui area on the other side of the city.

Zhu was soon so famous that his that shop owners were having him build light box advertising for their businesses. Zhu would find himself creating “lanterns” shaped like screws and keys.

In 2007, the Luodian lantern was officially made intangible cultural heritage of Shanghai, and Zhu was installed as a master inheritor of lantern skills.

Over the years, Zhu has significantly developed the art form. His purpose is to make it easier for people to acquire the skills and to create greater interest in the craft.

“Old lantern makers used reeds and bamboo to make the skeleton and then pasted paper onto them, but the lanterns were fragile and did not really look so good,” he said.

Now, steel wire, easier to work with and more versatile, is used to create an almost unlimited variety of shapes, and silk cloth covers the skeletons.

To streamline production, instead of finishing the entire framework before pasting on the fabric, Zhu and his team now break down a lantern into its component parts and assemble them after each segment is complete.

“What will never change about our Luodian lanterns are their gaudy colors and ancient motifs,” Zhu said. “Our lanterns can’t compare with the industrially made ones at Yuyuan Garden, but they are an important part of our traditions and life.”

One of Zhu’s co-workers is 76-year-old Tang Xiuying. Tang joined the team in 2004. She prepares and cuts the fabric before pasting it onto the frame.

“The work is interesting because you’re creating something with your own hands, and you also get to chat with co-workers who are good friends,” she said.

Zhu’s lanterns have traveled to New Zealand and France. He still remembers his two-week stay in New Zealand in 2008, the first time he had been to another country. He took with him a double-dragon lantern almost 20 meters long.

“The lantern was lifted to a pedestrian overpass by crane,” he recalled. The lantern, together with some others, was for a festival held by the Chinese community there.

In Luodian, every year during Lantern Festival and Dragon Boat Festival Zhu and his team present their best work. For the coming festival, they took up some new challenges.

Instead of one huge lantern, they are creating four sets of lanterns based on the four seasons. The spring lantern, over 3 meters tall, will be blossoming with a human figurine rising up in the middle, and on the summer lantern, five dragon boats colored blue, green, white, pink and yellow will float round and round.

Zhu has various professionals on his team. Zhang Guiqiu, 62, a retired electrician, started his work on the project in October last year. As there were no welders on the team, Zhang decided to learn.

“My parents told me that there was a long tradition of lighting pagoda-shaped lanterns at Lantern Festival in our town,” he said. “I loved those lanterns, and I think we have to keep our traditions alive.”

“One day is not enough to show off these great creations,” he said. “Last year on Lantern Festival, they started to get put out at 9pm while many tourists were still jostling with each other for the last pictures.”

The lantern show featuring those created by Zhu and his team of enthusiasts will be found at Dragon Boat Square in Luodian Town on Tuesday.


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