I imagined a sky full of glowing paper lanterns gracefully floating in the night sky, higher and higher until they were beyond sight. I was looking forward to writing my wish on the delicate exterior of a lantern and holding it up high as the paper filled with gas from the burning flame and slowly began to elevate over my outstretched arms.
That’s not actually what the Zigong Lantern Festival is like. But, it’s still incredible.
So, What is the Lantern Festival in Zigong?
Lanterns at this festival are more like lit structures ranging from 3 feet tall flowers to dinosaurs that must be at least 3 stories high. The structures are mostly made of wire (some might be made the traditional way with bamboo) and covered in fine mesh, silk or other semi-transparent materials that, when lit, glow in an amazing array of colors. This is a festival of over-the-top color and lights with mix of traditional and modern elements. Some of the lanterns are animated and move or even dance to music, while others are so large they can be seen from blocks away peaking over the tops of trees.
What’s truly unique about this festival is that each year the majority of the lanterns are entirely new. I’ve attended for two consecutive years and can attest to the fact that the display was entirely different from the year before. They must work the entire year to come up with designs to compliment the chosen theme and also pay tribute to the astrological animal for that corresponds to the New Year.
The History (According to Ladies in Sichuan)
My friends love to share stories about China’s long history and I love to learn more about the culture. I found the history of this festival particularly charming.
According to them, in ancient times, young people traveled home for Spring Festival (Lunar New Year holiday) and because of the difficulty of traveling and the need to spend quality time with family they often stayed for weeks or even months. Without technology, it could get pretty boring sitting around your parent’s or your grandparent’s home. Not only that, but over-eager family members love to play matchmaker and what better time to set up your daughter than when all of the local families have their eligible sons home?
The families got crafty.
Each family would hang a lantern out front of the family home. The lanterns were similar in appearance to the ones seen above, but would have a riddle written on the inside. Young people would look forward to emerging from their homes and meeting up with other people in town to go door to door to solve the riddles. If you were really lucky, maybe this would also wind up being your first date with prince charming.
Zigong is a small Sichuan town that’s worth a visit if you’re in the area. It’s known in China for two things: dinosaurs and salt. Salt, being an essential and highly valuable resource thoughout history, led to Zigong being a fairly well-off city for hundreds of years. Today, you can relive some of that history in the Salt Museum, or taste some of their traditional dishes (I can attest, they are saltier than most places in Sichuan). The wealth that was accumulated in part due to the booming salt trade has left its mark on the city and there’s still some ornate historical buildings downtown and near the river.
There has also been several dinosaur skeletons excavated from the local area leading the town to create a dinosaur themed museum (自贡恐龙博物馆). It’s not anything to write home about, but if you happen to love dinosaurs, have some time to kill before your bus back to Chengdu, or if you’re traveling with kids, it might be worth the visit. At the very least, check out the cool entrance exterior and outdoor gardens. I find the outside is better than the dusty remains inside.
A great option if you’re in Zigong is visiting a tea house. Sichuan province is known for it’s tea culture, and Zigong has a few lovely locations for passing time with a cup of tea, a game of cards and your favorite snack. The Wangye Temple on the banks of the Fuxi River has been converted into a tea house and has a reputation for being one of the best in Sichuan. I’m not the only one that loves it, you can read the Lonely Planet recommendation here.
Want to visit the Zigong Lantern Festival?
Here’s what you need to know.
- Zìgòng 自贡 is located about 3 hours South of Chengdu via bus. You can also travel from Chongqing though it’s slightly further. From the bus station, take a taxi downtown to the grounds, exept during the evening when traffic is at a standstill. Show the driver this address:
Zigong Colored Lantern Park, Ziliujing District, Zigong, Sichuan
- The festival runs for 30 days after the Lunar New Year. Tickets are the most expensive the first week and get cheaper each week after. This means that crowds are the largest during the New Year holidays and at the end of the festival.
- Go early! You can walk around the park while the sun is setting without extreme crowds, but once the sun sets the crowds can be so thick it’s hard to walk. Weekdays are also a bit less busy.
- For an additional fee (about 20 yuan) you can access a walkway over the water to see some of the lanterns up close. Most people don’t pay the extra fee, so if you want unobstructed photos this might be for you. Buy the additional tickets in the park at the walkway, not the main entrance.
- As with most crowded places, avoid bringing bags and valuables.
Questions about the festival or visiting Zigong? Feel free to ask in the comments below.