Ancient Festival Lanterns in the Forbidden City

Like any ordinary family, the ancient emperors also added some festival decorations to their residence, the Forbidden City, during the Chinese New Year. One of the holiday activities was erecting the heaven lanterns and longevity lanterns. It was one of the grandest activities of the early and middle Qing Dynasty as the whole job required more than 8,000 people. With the decline of the Qing Dynasty, the custom was ended in 1840. To this day, only the pedestals remain on and under the front stairs in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Great Supremacy.

Where were they erected?

Palace of Heavenly Purity
Pedestals to Erect Lanterns
in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity

A pair of heaven lanterns and a pair of longevity lanterns would be set respectively under and above the Danbi in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity. The Danbi is the main stairs in front of the palace. Since 1785 during the 54th years’ reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), 2 additional pairs of lanterns were erected in front of the Hall of Great Supremacy, which was designed as the residence for Qianlong’s retirement.

When were they erected?

According to records, the heaven lanterns and longevity lanterns were lit on the 24th day of the twelfth lunar month every year and then removed on the third day of the second lunar month and on the 18th day of the first lunar month respectively. In actuality, the day of setting the lanterns in front of the Hall of Great Supremacy was advanced to the 20th day of the twelfth lunar month.

Heaven Lanterns

The heaven lantern is hung on a high pole with a cross bar equipped with pulley. At night, a big red lantern was lit and then hoisted up to the pole head using the pulley. It was fixed in place by the four copper weights around the pedestals. The records say the height of the heaven lantern in front the Hall of Great Supremacy was 13.2 meters (43.3 feet). The lantern in from of the Palace of Heavenly Purity was higher as befitting the Hall’s higher rank.

Heaven Lanterns
A Replica of Heaven Lantern
Longevity Lanterns
Replicas of Longevity Lanterns

Longevity Lanterns

The longevity lantern was even more beautiful than the heaven lantern. It was used for decoration and for displaying poetic slogans. It had a lamppost carved with golden dragons. The top of the lamppost was in the shape of a pavilion called a Denglou. The Denglou of the longevity lantern was a painted hexagonal double-eave pavilion. The remaining pedestals in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity and Hall of Great Supremacy are also hexagonal to match the hexagonal pavilion. There were eight immortal statues in the pavilion and they would rotate when the wind blew. Outside the pavilion, there were also eight immortal statues carved from wood. Every immortal had a pole under his feet which was for hanging streamers containing the longevity couplets. The 16 couplets of the longevity lantern were silk embroidered with gold thread. The characters on both sides of the couplets praised the prosperity of the country. The couplets were also tied to copper weights around the pedestal. The longevity lantern set in front of the Hall of Great Supremacy was 10 meters (32.8 feet) high while the one in from of the Palace of Heavenly Purity was even higher.

Restorage of the Festival Lanterns in the Forbidden City

Although the heaven lantern and longevity lantern were not used for 179 years, and related cultural relics are incomplete, researchers made great efforts to find out the use mode, historical data, and detailed sizes of all the parts of the lanterns. They also found a lantern body, a small number of lantern couplets and an original lantern pole in various warehouses in the Forbidden City and successfully recovered them. Afterwards, they were auctioned for charity.

- Last updated on Nov. 24, 2023 by Kate Liu -
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