Sitting two blocks from the Liberty Bell and under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge is a site not to be missed. Come sunset, the heart of Philadelphia is now aglow with 28 larger than life illuminated groupings of 1,500 individual lanterns created by artisans from China. Many beautiful cultural traditions have grown out of myth and legend and this is one of them. Centuries ago as the story goes, there was a beautiful bird who was favored by a god. This bird flew down to earth and unfortunately, a villager killed the bird by accident. The god was so angry that he ordered the entire village be burned in retaliation. As fate would have it, there was a very wise man in the village who hit upon an ingenious solution. He got the people to light torches, lanterns and set off fireworks to fool the god into thinking the world was already burning and then leave mankind in peace. Out of this legend over hundreds of years, the celebration of the Chinese Lantern Festival continues throughout major cities in China on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunar calendar. They are held to gain favor of Taiyi, the god of heaven and invoke blessings on a fruitful harvest. In ancient times, the lanterns were fairly simple, and only the emperor and noblemen had large ornate ones. In modern times, lanterns have been embellished with many complex designs similar to those on view here in Philadelphia.
In China, artists designed the lanterns and they were then created by hand on over 50,000 square feet of silk fabric. They then transported all the materials by ship in 15 containers to Philadelphia. For one month prior to the recent opening, a 30 person team of artisans worked to build the steel frames, light them with over 15,000 LED lights along 16,000 feet of electric cables and finally stretch the silk over the metal. It is a massive feat of artistry and engineering and a truly wonderful gift from China to our city of Brotherly/Sisterly love. Last year, more than 89,000 people from 49 states and 17 countries visited the Festival.
The festival location at Franklin Square is totally transformed into a magical, whimsical Chinese wonderland. Each light sculpture tells a legend or symbolizes an old Chinese story. Visitors first walk through a beautiful orange and red glowing koi fish gate. The design was inspired by the Chinese myth, “Leaping the Dragon Gate.” Legend has it that each Chinese carp would swim the Yellow River upstream to spawn, and those who could leap the waterfall at the Dragon Gate would transform into dragons! This metaphor is used to describe a person who works hard and diligently. A centerpiece is the glowing blue and white Chinese Dragon lantern which is longer than three school buses and weighs 3,000 pounds. Standing 200 feet long and 21 feet high with the head installed by a crane with a 15-person crew. The Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the Black Tortoise of the North, and the Vermilion Bird of the South are four mythical animals said to have mystical powers that brought luck and happiness. Their stories have been passed down from generation to generation for over 2,000 years. One can walk through a Shark Tunnel that is 75 feet long and weighs 1.5 tons and a Time Tunnel with stars and moons and the heavens glowing in changing colors. One of my favorite displays was the beautiful fairy tree, a symbol of life and vitality. Its constantly sparkling and changing hues drew me into its magic and charm.
Besides the 28 larger than life illuminated groupings to wander through and enjoy, shows are presented daily highlighting the special skills of an acrobatic performance of plate spinning on 3 foot bamboo poles. The spinning plates resemble lotus leaves in the breeze and butterflies flying among the flowers. Contortionists showcase their skills of extreme physical flexibility, balancing a variety of items and twisting and turning towards the sky. The acrobats visiting from China are Yuhan Song, Lun Huang, Xiaoqi Zeng, Xiaoqin Tang, Shihue Wang. Each night, visitors are privy to one of the most fascinating Chinese cultural performances associated with the opera in the Sichuan Province for over 300 years. Ms. Aibi Chen has been practicing “Face Changing” or “Bian Lian” for the past 10 years. With a twist of the neck and flip of the fan, Aibi changes masks in a split second and morphs into another character, capturing other emotions. The technique is a treasured secret and passed down from one generation to the next. These performances with the unique lighted backdrop certainly enhance the wonder of a visit to the Lantern Festival. Before leaving, stop by the artists booths and have your name painted with images of dragons, mountains, birds, flowers and animals to spell out your name. It is believed to bring good luck and is often given as a gift on very special occasions in China. Stand and watch these craftsmen create butterflies from melted sugar and just like the Face Changing, painting beautiful scenes from the inside of the bottle is another art passed down through the generations and one wonders how they ever can do that! I was truly in awe at the intricate designs appearing before my eyes.
The Chinese Lantern Festival is being held at Franklin Square through June 30th. The Festival opens to the public at 7 and tickets cost $18.for adults, $12 for those age 17 and under and $15 for seniors and active military. Timed tickets are required for Friday and Saturday nights. Parking can be easily found close by under the Constitution Center. I went back twice recently just because there is so much to take in and I just loved learning about the myths and legends and experiencing the wonders and the beauty of the Chinese culture. I am so grateful to Stephanie Zhou for her great generosity of time and knowledge. Now I want to visit the Sichuan Province to see how it all begins! At a time when we hear about levying tariffs and being involved in trade wars, ART always uplifts and transcends and it is in the sharing and appreciation that the magic is found.
Video Highlights of the Festival
Chinese Lantern Festival from Frances Schwabenland on Vimeo.
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