Bringing a brighter twist to the usual holiday light displays, Nashville Zoo’s Zoolumination: Chinese Festival of Lights aims to awe guests and send them home with a greater appreciation for a spectacular cultural tradition.
The history of Chinese lanterns and their use can be dated back to the Eastern Han dynasty in 25-220 AD. Lanterns were first used as a way to protect flames from catching anything on fire because of the wind, but the lanterns’ meaning has transformed into a tradition of celebration that is still popular today.
“Over the years, lanterns have become a symbol of festivals, cheerfulness, rejuvenation and togetherness,” said Qingjun Le, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Chinese at Belmont University. “All this value has been embedded into the culture of using lanterns.”
Lanterns are also a way to celebrate Chinese New Year at the end of January through lantern festivals.
“Before people are ready to go back to work after the New Year, the tradition is to use lanterns on the last day of the celebration,” Le said. “Everyone uses lanterns, including families, temples and businesses to celebrate.”
Zoolumination, running Nov. 15 – Feb. 2, will encompass all aspects of an authentic lantern festival. Traditional performers will be traveling from China to amaze guests with their acrobatic, balancing and juggling skills, Zoo chefs will serve Chinese dishes and the grounds will be covered in hand-crafted, glowing lanterns.
To prepare for this 63-night event, the Zoo welcomed more than 40 lantern builders with Zigong Lantern Group from Zigong, China. The group has opened lantern festivals in 16 countries and more than 30 cities around the globe, including Singapore, Dublin and Hamburg.
“Zigong is famous for lanterns,” said Li Lingqiao, Zigong Lantern Group foreman. “It’s a special place for building lanterns and the skill of building lanterns is a combination of arts and technical skills.”
The workers have created one-of-a-kind pieces of art that are unlike any other lanterns found at other festivals. Some lanterns can take a day to make, others more than a week. By the end of the construction process, the group will have created more than 500 handmade, silk lanterns, making this the largest lantern festival in the country.
“Everyone can get something out of this,” Le said. “If you’re American, it brings a different culture into the city and a good education of diversity. If you’re Chinese-American, you can get excited that this is a reminder of home.”