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Sky Lanterns

Sky lanterns, also called Kongming lanterns, once had a military purpose in ancient China. Contingents of armies would signal to each other by sending these lanterns into the sky — a tactic that has been used for various purposes throughout Chinese history. Today they are used to celebrate big events in a person’s life, major [...]

Sky lanterns, also called Kongming lanterns, once had a military purpose in ancient China. Contingents of armies would signal to each other by sending these lanterns into the sky — a tactic that has been used for various purposes throughout Chinese history. Today they are used to celebrate big events in a person’s life, major world events, as well as some festivals.

Invented in the third century China by a general named Zhuge Liang — codename: Kongming — these lanterns that became his namesake are made from rice paper and have either a bamboo or wire frame. On the bottom side of the lantern there is an opening — like on a hot air balloon — where the frame joins together. At this confluence a block of flammable, oil impregnated wax is attached. To set off the lantern you hold it upright and light the block of wax. The flame will then heat the air inside the lantern, which lowers its density. After around five minutes the lantern will begin to rise into the air of its own volition and then take off into the sky.

Sky lantern

Sky lanterns are usually inscribed with messages on their surface, which are meant for various purposes: from communicating with heaven to symbolically releasing the self from burden. There are lantern festivals throughout China, Taiwan, and Thailand, where thousands and thousands are set off at once.

As I watched a group of friends in Taizhou write messages on a few sky lanterns they were about to set off it became clear that some of them were putting a lot of heart into this activity. They were setting off these lanterns to celebrate one of the group’s completion of one year in China, but each person put their own touch of meaning into it. Some wrote deeply personal verses in their native language, some added poems or inspirational quotes, while others just scrawled dick jokes with drawings of massive penises. Apparently, everybody has their own take on what is worth sharing with heaven.

The group then assembled in an open area and prepared to set the lanterns off. They lit each of the blocks of wax on each of the three lanterns, held them tentatively, and waited for them to take flight. Then, just as they were taking off, a security guard came running towards them. He was screaming, he reached up and snatched one lantern from the sky and threw it back down to the earth. He said they were dangerous — which was apparent — but he was powerless to stop the other two lanterns from rising into the sky.

Flammable wax on a sky lantern

One of the lanterns flew high, way up into the heavens, and eventually disappeared from view. The other petered out quick and landed on the roof of a nearby building  — still flaming. Shit. A brief wave of panic ensued when it was thought that the flaming mini-blimp may catch a nearby tree on fire, but on further inspection it was apparent that it was in the clear.

The little fire was sitting on the downward slope of a terracotta roof. There is no way that a piece of flaming wax is going to set baked clay on fire. The group stood below the building and watched the flame dance and flicker in the night sky. Everyone stood around in a circle and watched the prayer speckled lantern fizzle into ash. Though it crashed and burned there was still something beautiful in it.

Sky lanterns are outlawed in many countries for a reason.

Inscribing a message on a sky lantern

Sky lantern in flight

Filed under: China, Uncategorized

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3465 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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