Sky Lanterns: Wreckage or Culture?

By Elizabeth Lam 

It had been raining for five days before the sun came out, on a Sunday. To shake off the blues, my mom and I decided to hike along the the trails between Shulin and Yingge. It was a pleasant walk in a bamboo grove, accompanied by jackfruit trees, and with the smell of sweet osmanthus in the air, and ended at a hundred- year-old banyan tree. At one point we awoke a flock of wild birds while passing by a dense thicket, and looking in the direction they’d fled, a large piece of red paper caught my attention. It was a burned sky lantern, fallen from the sky and hanging on branches like a drop of red paint on a green canvas. Is this, brusquely left here by our traditional culture, worth the sacrifice of our environment, I wondered.

According to historians, the sky lantern is said to have been invented by military strategist Zhuge Liang (AKA Kongming) during the Warring States period (3rd century BC) in China. Liang wrote a message on a sky lantern and released it into the sky to summon help when he was surrounded by enemies. So how did the sky lantern become a traditional activity in the New Taipei City village of Pingxi, the center of today’s sky lantern culture in Taiwan?

I decided to revisit Pingxi, where I used to praise the beauty of the dreamy flames, to look for the answer. Luckily, my question was solved by an old couple on a nearby trail, where we could still see lanterns being released. “Back in the time when bandits regularly raided Pingxi, villagers would hide in the surrounding mountains during a raid until men who’d stayed in the village lit a sky lantern as a signal to say it was safe to return” said the man. He also told me another story that sky lanterns were a tradition from Huian County in China’s Fujian Province, which was brought here after ancestors from there moved to Pingxi. They would light up sky lanterns during Chinese New Year as symbolic “letters” to their families back in China. “But our favorite story about the origin of the sky lantern is that the pronunciation of sky lantern in Taiwanese (thian ting) sounds similar to the phrase for ‘having a baby boy’ (thinn ting). Pingxi residents used sky lanterns as fertility prayers,” he explained. A silence struck our conversation. We all stood there and watched as the fifth lantern fell into the forest like a fallen culture whose past and future no one is interested in.

Those lantern remains, including metal wires and bamboo frames, fall either into the river or into the tops of trees, where they are impossible to reach. There they not only cause environmental pollution, but also became a potential threat to wildlife. To reduce the environmental impact, the government offers rewards to members of the public for returning the abandoned lanterns, but can we expect the very few elders who make their living by redeeming recyclables to collect more than a tiny percentage of the burnt lantern remains? Fortunately, Taiwan Adventure Outings and other groups of volunteers arrange activities to clean up sky lanterns along the Pingxi and Shifen railroad and in the surrounding woods, but they can only reach the more easily accessible remains.

On my way back to Shifen station, I passed by a group of tourists, who were sharing the joy of the sky lantern experience, and I could not help but wonder, “How much does it cost to experience a culture while a part of it and the environment are withering away each time the flame inside goes out?”

Elizabeth Lam is a UX designer, amateur painter, and lifetime explorer, who spends most of her time creating paths in Illustrator, and the rest of her time looking for paths in nature.