Lantern Festival

Chinese lantern
Image source: Wikimedia

When I was a kid, my mother would string Chinese lanterns through our Christmas tree. There were maybe a dozen of those little white lights, each one painted and tasseled. I think they blinked, too. I remember sitting in front of that tree celebrating my very own lantern festival.

Traditionally, Chinese lanterns are made with bamboo frames over which paper or silk is tightly wrapped. Other variations include porcelain, glass jars, and even test tubes. Some are small enough for a child to carry while others can stand as tall as a building.

There are lantern festivals all over the world. In Thailand, locals light lanterns to honor Buddha. Other festivals commemorate the dead. In China, the lantern festival is a moment to foster peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The Chinese call it the Yuan Xiao Festival. They celebrate it on the fifteenth day of the new year.

Yuan Xiao Festival

No one knows exactly when or why the Lantern Festival began. One myth says that the Jade Emperor got angry because someone had killed his goose. So he ordered a town to be burnt. A fairy told the townspeople to light lanterns and hang them all over town. The emperor went away, thinking the town was already in flame.

giant panda
Pandasia, Ouwehands Zoo. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The next Chinese Lantern Festival falls on 19 February 2019. But here in Holland, the party has already begun. The Ouwehands Zoo sits in the middle of the country, not far from the city of Utrecht. Its claim to fame is a pair of pandas, the only ones resident in the Netherlands. But what do pandas have to do with a Chinese lantern festival?

One link is geographic. Pandas come from a narrow strip of bamboo forest in the mountains of Sichuan Province. Zigong, a town in the same province, is famous for its lantern makers. But there’s more.

To many in the west, the animal represents wildlife conservation […], poor sexual performance and perhaps comedic kung-fu cartoons. In China it is a majestic “national treasure” that embodies the country’s benign nature, uniqueness and ancient culture.

Jamil Anderlini, “How the panda became China’s diplomatic weapon of choice,” Financial Times, Nov. 3, 2017

Panda Power

The Chinese have used pandas for diplomatic purposes at least since 695AD when the Empress Wu Zetian gave a pair of pandas to Japan. In 1941, China gave pandas to the United States in thanks for wartime aid against Japan. In 1972, Mao Zedong sent a pair of pandas following Richard Nixon’s visit to China.

Today, panda diplomacy is one of the many ways in which China works to improve its image abroad and thus its ability to influence world affairs. Those efforts include the Belt and Road Initiative to promote economic integration through Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, as well as its significant developmental aid. These investments are seen as China’s effort to build up enough goodwill to turn it into soft power.

Soft power, a term coined by Harvard University scholar Joseph S. Nye Jr. in 1990, is the means by which a country gets other countries to “want what it wants.”

Eleanor Albert, “China’s Big Bet on Soft Power,” Council on Foreign Relations, last updated Feb. 9, 2018

The traditional forms of soft power are cultural. For the US, that was Hollywood movies. In China, we’re talking about Confucius Institutes to teach Mandarin, a booming film industry to spread Chinese culture, and pop culture icons like the pianist Lang Lang. And that’s where pandas and lantern festivals come into play.

Dutch Treat

China no longer gives away its pandas. Instead, China loans them for a ten year stint at a fee of US$ one million per year. All biological material produced by the pandas, including blood, semen, fur, and offspring, remains Chinese property. Loan terms include construction of special panda enclosure, the use of Chinese experts to oversee the bears, and purchasing the bamboo used to feed the pandas from China.

In the case of the Netherlands, the panda loan required 15 years of negotiations and preparation, including visits by 3 Dutch prime ministers and a request from King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima. This loan coincided with a major trade deal in 2017 whereby the Netherlands will provide advanced healthcare services to China.

Xi personally signs off on every panda loan to a foreign country, according to several people with knowledge of the process. But before he decides whether to grant a country pandas or not, China requires the foreign head of state — the queen of Denmark, Angela Merkel herself — to ask for the bears in person. People involved say the convoluted negotiations and personal involvement of a foreign leader remind them of ancient rituals in which Chinese emperors would receive barbarian supplicants.

Jamil Anderlini, ibid

What’s been given can also be taken away. In 2010, China repatriated two panda cubs born in US zoos. This in retaliation for US President Barack Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama.

China Light Festival

Pandasia, Ouwehands Zoo
Pandasia. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Wu Wen and Xing Ya arrived at Ouwehand Zoo in May 2017. They live in a custom-built enclosure called Pandasia. It looks like a Ming Dynasty palace. The ground floor is panda territory. The top two floors are for their guests to eat Chinese food and buy panda-branded merchandise.

Pandasia was where we assembled for the VIP opening of the China Light Festival. Artisans had come from Zigong, Sichuan Province, to construct roughly 50 Chinese lantern displays. Most of the guests that evening were under the age of 12. So the VIPs must have been the zoo director, Robin de Lange, and the Minister Counselor of the Chinese Embassy, Chen Ribiao.

De Lange spoke of the zoo’s obligations to promote Chinese culture under the panda loan agreement. To date, he said, Ouwehands Zoo has organized lion dances, ceramic bowl painting and, now, a lantern festival. Counselor Chen spoke of the need to familiarize the Dutch people with Chinese culture. He called it people-to-people exchanges.

The Festival Route

So what was I doing among the VIPs, big and small? I helped write the brochure for this year’s festival together with my Chinese teacher, Sha Sha Liu. The idea was to explain the various lanterns along the festival route. What they represent or their significance to the Chinese culture. Not to talk about panda diplomacy.

So here’s a sampling of what we said about the pretty lights:

China Light Festival
Temple of Heaven, China Light Festival. Photo credit: Karen Kao

This girl has come to visit the Temple of Heaven, one of China’s best-known monuments inside the Forbidden City in Beijing. Once an altar complex for the personal use of the emperor, the Temple of Heaven is now part of a park where ordinary Chinese can come to dance, play checkers or practice martial arts.

China Light Festival
The Monkey King in the Celestial Peach Garden, China Light Festival. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Journey to the West is one of China’s most beloved books. Written during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it tells the tale of the monk Xuanzhang who travels to India to bring Buddhism to China. Sun Wukong, the monkey king, is supposed to protect the monk. But he’s a real rascal. When the monkey king is given the task of guarding the celestial peach garden, he eats them all.

Chinese lanterns, like the history they depict, are full of tricksters. You can use lanterns to fool an emperor or an old monk. Or to light your way to the panda enclosure where you can think about the cuddly Chinese. But, hey, the lights are pretty, aren’t they?