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Elderly artisan keeps flame of hope alive for lantern expertise

China Daily | Updated: 2022-02-17

Holding a small steel file in one calloused hand and a hammer in the other, Zou Hongda finishes a thick pile of paper-cutting artwork after a few knocks with his trusted tool.

The 73-year-old artisan has been making festive lanterns for more than 40 years in Baiyan village, Wenchang city, South China's Hainan province.

Lantern Festival, which fell on Tuesday this year, is the end to the Spring Festival holiday. In Wenchang, people usually "send lights" to celebrate and express their wishes, a tradition dating back more than 100 years.

When night falls, lanterns are lit. Accompanied by the sounds of gongs and drums, children carry small lanterns while adults shoulder larger traditional lanterns and the parade begins. It is the lantern-makers' persistence that keeps the traditions alive.

For Zou, Spring Festival is the busiest time of the year, leaving him with only three or four hours of sleep after making lanterns all day. This year, Zou made about 500 lanterns that were sent out to people from over 120 villages.

Making a lantern usually takes three steps-framing, paper-cutting and pasting. The lantern frame requires bamboo that has grown for about two years, not too tender or too old.

"If it's too tender, it will easily shrink, and if it's too old, it will easily break," says Zou, adding that the more accurately cut the bamboo is, the better the lanterns will be.

The lanterns usually feature auspicious Chinese characters, such as fu and xi, which mean "fortune" and "happiness".

Paper-cutting relates much to the design, which usually adopts symmetrical patterns so that the light can radiate better from the inside. The craft of pasting paper-cuts has improved in recent years.

Zou says adhesive paste was used years ago, but it would become hard overnight. "Now, we use glue, and it's more efficient."

In his eyes, the beauty of traditional lanterns lies in the interaction between light and paper-cutting.

"The real essence of the traditional folk art is released when the light shines through the paper-cuts," says Zou, adding that lantern shows in big cities seem to only care about appearances while losing the traditional appeal.

The amount of time and effort required for lantern-making has led to the dwindling numbers of artisans. But Zou still insists on it as he has a deep affection for the traditional handicraft.

"Sending lights is our local custom and it's quite popular. If no one makes the lanterns, the traditional folk custom will be lost," says Zou.

Now, Zou's son and daughter-in-law, as well as two granddaughters, have all joined him in making lanterns.

"I am old and feel that my abilities fall short of my wishes, but I can continue to make lanterns for four or five more years," says Zou.