By Robin Monsky
Despite the fact that Christmas is not celebrated in China the same way it is here in the United States, a Chinese tradition that has survived more than 2,000 years is responsible for perhaps the most spectacular display of holiday lights Ohioans can find this winter.
More than 30,000 twinkling LED lights create a wonderland of brilliant color and Chinese culture at Natural Resources Park at the Ohio State Fairgrounds during the Dragon Lights – Columbus festival that runs from November 23, 2018 until January 6, 2019.
A riot of illuminated colors built into 40 larger-than-life hand-made lantern sculptures enthralls visitors and provides an unforgettable experience six nights a week during this authentic Chinese Lantern Festival. The Lantern art form dates back to 206 BCE.
According to Chinese mythology, in the spring time around the Chinese New Year a monster would come out of hiding to attack livestock and people. His name was ‘Nian’ which was pronounced the same as the word for ‘year’ in Chinese.
A wise man found out that Nian was afraid of bright colors, strong light and loud noises so a tradition arose to hang colorful fire lanterns to keep Nian from ruining the harvest. Since then, Chinese people have lit lanterns and lampions on the 15th day of the first calendar month of the year to pray for a good harvest. To this day, Chinese lantern festivals are held every year in all corners of the country around the Chinese New Year.
The traditional Chinese Lantern Festival holiday roughly compares to Americans’ Christmas holidays. It’s a time when Chinese family members travel back home to be with their loved ones so they can enjoy the holiday lights and festivities together. And even though the lanterns are no longer needed to scare away the monster, they have evolved over the generations to become an art form that represents culture and achievement. Each light object tells a legend or symbolizes an ancient Chinese folktale.
Lanterns originally were crafted with bamboo, wood and paper – and were small enough to be carried in ancient times. Not so here in Columbus where a 200-foot long, multi-story tall, towering dragon guards the exhibition. His head alone weighs 600 pounds.
The modern-day lanterns have been transformed in size, scale and materials although each and every one is still proudly hand-made. They have become individual customized pieces of art in their own right. They are so striking that some of the Dragon Lights’ festival lanterns were used in a scene in the James Bond movie Skyfall.
The breathtaking sculptures on display at the Ohio Expo Centre and State Fairgrounds begin as a collection of 20 tons of metal rods and pipes delivered to the Fairgrounds. Once there, they will be touched by more than sixty Chinese artisans who specialize in building these lanterns and who fly to Ohio just to create the pieces. Their skills are so singular that each artist comes from China’s Sichuan Province, the cultural capital for the ancient art of lantern-making. An estimated 2,000 lantern artists reside in the area.
While the metal skeletons are created and then strings of lights are hung in the structures to light them from the inside, other Chinese artists cut 65,000 feet of raw silk, dye each piece, paint details on the newly-colored silk and then bring each character alive by attaching the silk to the forms. The work is so detailed that it takes an entire month of effort on the ground in Ohio to stage this elaborate light extravaganza.
As if the dazzling lights are not enough of a reason to go see the Dragon Lights – Columbus Festival, there is also a twice-nightly stage show, set to traditional Chinese music that features traditional Chinese contortionists, hoop divers, jugglers, plate spinners and the magical Chinese Face Changer.
Additionally, there’s a demonstration area with artists showing the intricacies behind thousand-year-old Chinese crafts that have been passed down through their families for generations. Visitors will see things like Inner Bottle Painting (painting elaborate designs and calligraphy inside of already made glass bottles), Iron Wire Weaving, Sugar Painting and Knot-Tying. The artists will also sell their creations as unique personalized gifts just in time for the holidays.
Children of all ages will be charmed by the “Panda Theater” – a corridor featuring not only lighted versions of the cuddly creatures but also playing a live video show named “ipanda” which shows the real life of pandas in China.
Dragon Lights – Columbus is part of a 15-city tour produced by Tianyu Arts and Culture. Each city welcomes its own unique set of hand-crafted lanterns. None of the silk sculptures in Columbus will be used in other cities. The Chinese company believes that bringing the experiential lantern festivals to the U.S. can improve intercultural communication between China and the World.
Come explore the tradition-filled culture and history of China in your backyard right here in Ohio. See the Ohio State Fairgrounds in a whole new light – but beware of a monster named Nian! For more information, see the website DragonLightsColumbus.com.