Photo Tour of The Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival

Each spring, Philadelphia has turned the city block of Franklin Square into a Chinese Lantern Festival that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors. But the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the event’s cancellation. So, here we look back at the 2019 festival as a way to help us think about the renewed event that’s sure to happen on the other side of COVID-19. As before, in 2019, the Square was changed into a visually spectacular trip through the icons of Chinese culture and craftsmanship.
Two dragons frame the entrance gateway to Philadelphia Chinese Lantern festival.
Sponsored by Historic Philadelphia, Inc., and produced by Tianyu Arts & Culture, Inc., of Chicago, the Festival’s main entrance gate with its sinuous dragons welcomed a steady stream of visitors from around the region as well as the country. The event was open for two months.
Franklin Square's central fountain pond surrounded by Chinese lantern art.
Organized around Franklin Square’s large central fountain, the radiating grid of walks and lush gardens are augmented with flower-like glowing lanterns that are just part of acres of structures and artworks that take a crew of Chinese artisans a month to build.
The art of lantern making is thousands of years old in China
Thousands of years ago, the people of China created portable lighting devices by surrounding crude animal-fat-and-wick lamps with a lattice of bamboo strips or twigs covered with leaves. By the 600s AD, these lanterns evolved into an ever more sophisticated art form in the Tang Dynasty, the zenith of Chinese civilization.
Large dragon figure made of tiny bottles filled with colored water
Both the art and utility of lanterns were greatly expanded by the Tang Dynasty’s invention of rice paper. It was flexible, durable and wonderfully translucent as a lantern covering that allowed the device to be decorated with intricate designs and calligraphy. Today, other technologies, like the tiny colored-water-filled bottles that make up this dragon, have been incorporated into the art.
Phoenix lantern sculpture at Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival
Unlike Western culture where it is a sign of rebirth from disaster, the Phoenix of ancient Chinese culture is a messenger of happiness and prosperity. Its image has long been celebrated on lanterns. Today’s construction materials, however, transform the concept of “lantern” into massive light sculptures like this one.
The tail of a phoenix lantern sculpture is longer than a Greyhound bus
This particular Phoenix “lantern” stands as tall — and its tails are as long — as a Greyhound tour bus. Its sheer size makes it an incredible illuminated visual in the darkness of the night. The Phoenix of Chinese culture is also associated with femininity, kindness, justice and graciousness.
Young girls walk into the gigantic gaping jaws of a dragon-shaped lantern at Philadelphia's lantern festival.
Similar to the Phoenix, the meaning of the Chinese dragon is very different from that of Western culture. Instead of being a ferocious, evil creature that threatens humans, the Chinese dragon is the opposite. Above, visitors walk into the mouth of a gigantic dragon lantern structure.
Giant lanterns and a glowing, twirling carousel at Philadelphia's Franklin Square.
The Chinese dragon is a benevolent symbol of good luck and the importance of water in all its forms (rain, rivers, etc). In fact, dragons live in water and are associated with masculinity, power, strength and beneficence. Above, Festival goers enter through the dragon lantern’s tail end.
A parrot-shaped lantern at Philadelphia's annual Chinese Lantern Festival
The lantern displays create an atmosphere of the sort described in a 1924 book by Grace Gallatin Seton: “Of all the many-sided impressions that the East leaves upon the heart and imagination none stand out so clearly as the glittering, gleaming, dancing light-givers, which are inseparable from life in China.”
Lantern materials sculpted into giant flowers.
Modern fabrication technologies have turned the art of lantern making into sculpture that can be incredibly intricate. And instead of a single “lantern,” entire tableaux of various cultural scenes are created, like this scene of Phoenix and flowers.
A four-story high "lantern" glows in the night on Philadelphia's FranklinSquare.
While their exteriors project a lantern-like delicacy, many structures are built around welded steel skeletons like this massive, four-story high display that towers over the visitors who view its luminous splendor from beach chairs.
A huge Chinese lantern features a life-size goddess
In ancient Chinese mythology, a powerful goddess lived in a palace on a far away mountain surrounded by a legion of beautiful fairies, other spiritual figures, fantastical animals and gardens of magic peaches. This lantern structure is topped by a life-size dancing fairy.
Nine-colored elk of Chinese fables are included in the Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival
One of China’s oldest fables is of a magical, nine-colored elk that recues humans and animals from dangers in the forest but asks them not to reveal his location. When betrayed by a greedy human, the elk turns hunters’ arrows to dust and watches as birds attack and drown the human betrayer.
Sculpture of a red-crested crane on display at a Chinese lantern festival
In real life, the red-crested crane — one of the rarest birds in the world — has long been an icon of ancient Chinese mythology, associated with long life and immortality. In Chinese literature, the bird often carries off “immortals,” or people of extraordinary accomplishments who are something like the Western Christian concept of saints.
Pandas on bicycles ride past stands of bamboo -- all made of lantern materials
Much beloved today, as in ancient times, Giant Pandas were regarded as sacred creatures of the forest and symbols of peace and bravery. Fables say pandas used to be all white, but turned partially black when they covered themselves with ashes to mourn a shepherdess who died while saving a panda from a leopard.
A flock of large cuckoo lanterns at Chinese Lantern Festival
Flocks of Chinese cuckoos are symbols of Spring and the auspicious planting season that glides in behind them. One Chinese myth holds that an evil ancient emperor’s soul was turned into the mysterious bird and destined to fly forever in search of something it could never find. Of course here, at the lantern festival, it has found delighted audiences of young children.
Stage for the show at the Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival
Acrobats, dancers and juggler troupes have been performing throughout towns and villages of China since there’s been a China. A daily centerpiece of the Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival is an evening performance by top level entertainers carrying on these ancient stage skills and traditions.
Female Chinese dancer in a flowing dress
Dancing has been part of Chinese culture from its earliest time, when the movements were essentially ritual enactments of superstitious beliefs. Today, Chinese dance is a high art form; the performers at the Lantern Festival combine traditional Chinese music with costumes and movements reminiscent of Western ballet.
Chinese contortionist juggles candelabras
A standard skill in Chinese folk entertainment troupes is a contortionist who does acrobatic moves while balancing candelabras with her hands, feet and teeth. The feat, which requires extraordinary strength, flexibility and balance, drew heavy applause from the crowd.
Chinese opera face changer
Face changing is a performance art perfected centuries ago for the Chinese opera. Wearing a wildly colorful costume and ornate head piece, the face changer shifts masks in a split second as he snaps open a fan, prances sideways or makes, at times, ferocious movements. The art is so revered by Chinese culture that, until very recently, it was illegal to teach face changing techniques to foreigners.