I’ll never forget my first sight of Pingxi. Rows of traditional shophouses ran parallel to the rail that brought me there, the retro snack stores, bric-a-brac shops and food stalls transporting me back to 1950s Taiwan. But the most dazzling scene came later, when my three friends and I released a sky lantern with our wishes written on it. This is the main reason tourists come to Pingxi, located about two hours by train from central Taipei.
Visitors just have to buy a lantern from one of the many shops specialising in them, and the shopkeepers provide ink to write a message and even help you take pictures as you send it to the skies. Each standard lantern, almost the height of a person, is constructed with four rice paper sheets glued to a bamboo hoop at the bottom. Paraffin-soaked brown paper is attached in the centre. It gets lit, the heat propelling it upwards to join the other lanterns glowing in the velvety darkness. It’s a mesmerising scene, and there’s also the warm and fuzzy feeling knowing the lanterns are carrying your wishes.
The tradition dates back to the Qing dynasty, when Pingxi was a remote but affluent district that had to deal with bandits. Villagers often took to the mountains to escape these dangers in winter. When the worst of the winter had passed, sky lanterns were flown to signal that it was safe for them to return. This became the Lantern Festival, now Pingxi’s most important cultural event, held on the 15th day of the first lunar month (19 February next year). Although you can release sky lanterns any day of the year, Lantern Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival (24 September this year) are the most popular periods for the tradition.
But there are downsides to the ritual: burnt-out lanterns come down as litter to pollute the hills and rivers, while the lit lanterns are fire hazards and can be dangerous for nocturnal animals. Although community groups and volunteers head out to retrieve the lanterns for small rewards, it’s not a perfect system.
A local group called Bank of Culture has developed an eco-friendly sky lantern. It replaces the bamboo frame and brown burning paper with recycled pulp that burns out completely in the air. The goal is to reduce residue and lower fire risk caused by smouldering lantern skeletons. Perhaps the project, now seeking funding for mass production, is the answer to helping this beautiful and fun tradition continue safely.