Sky Lanterns, historically known as Khoom Fay or Khom Fai (‘Fire Lantern,’ Chinese;Thai), are a traditional part of Asian and Thai culture dating back to 300 AD. They were first made of oiled rice paper stretched over a bamboo frame and fuelled by a small candle. The candle heated the air inside the lantern’s skin, making the trapped air less dense than the cooler surrounding air and thereby causing the lantern to rise.
While some historians disagree, folklore credits the invention of the first sky lantern to revered Chinese military strategist Zhuge Liang. Zhunge Liang’s reverent term of address was Kongming, which is why sky lanterns are sometimes called Kongming Lanterns, even today. The shape of the first sky lanterns were also thought to resemble the shape of Kongming’s favored hat.
In 3rd century China, the first sky lanterns were used as signalling devices in the military battles of the Warring States period. Soldiers would light them and send them drifting up into the sky, where they were visible to distant compatriots. This was a remarkable bit of ingenuity, especially when you consider that the idea was not duplicated in the Western world until the 17th century.
Although originally intended for military use, sky lanterns became a revered part of festivals, prayers, and celebrations throughout Asia in peaceful times. Thailand in particular uses lanterns in many rituals. For example, giving a sky lantern to a monk was believed to bring good luck because the lantern would light the path to wisdom and knowledge. They were also commonly thought to convey people’s hopes and dreams heavenward. The longer and higher a sky lantern floated, the better the luck the giver believed he would receive.
Releasing a sky lantern was also credited with carrying away burdens into the hands of the gods or God. It’s not hard to understand why. Standing in the dark, watching a single light or sea of beautifully flickering lights rise hopefully into the night sky can bring a profound sense of hopefulness and serenity to those watching below.
In Asia, sky lanterns are a long-standing part of celebrations, and often accompanied fireworks displays. For example, at the Yi Peng (full moon) Festival in Thailand’s Chiang Mai municipality, revelers gather each year during the full moon of the 12th lunar month to release their lanterns as offerings to Buddha, and to set aloft the old year’s fears and worries. Describing this event, journalist John Le Fevre writes, “Day and night the percussion of constantly exploding fireworks echo overhead as Chiang Mai celebrates the largest annual festival held in Thailand – Loi Krathong (floating raft) – and the traditional Chiang Mai Yi Peng (Festival of Lights).”
In Taipai, the annual Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival sees streets packed with people enjoying food from street vendors, music, and peaceful camaraderie. The event is a massive display of community and optimism, where those gathered write their wishes and dreams on the outside of their lanterns before letting them go. This tradition in Pingxi dates back to the Ching Dynasty, when villages often suffered raids from bands of roaming marauders. These raids, according to town elders, drove ancient villagers up into the mountains seeking refuge. After the raiders left, lanterns were released by village watchmen as a means to signal that it was once again safe for villagers to return home.
Also held in Pingxi was the February, 2005 “Light of Peace, City of Hope” event, which sought to commemorate the great 2004 tsunami. Every twenty minutes, several hundred lanterns were set aloft from the playground of Pingxi’s local middle school. The Taipai Times reports that the event was attended by Premier Frank Hsieh, who is quoted as saying, “I saw from the window of my car hundreds of lanterns floating in the dark skies. They are like stars. Suddenly my heart was filled with warmth and joy.” So famous are the Taiwanese lantern festivals, they were documented in an episode of The Discovery Channel’s series Fantastic Festivals of the World.