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January 14, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright January 14, 2009. Used by permission.


In the midst of this year’s bitter winter, a glimmer of hope shines through: the Lunar New Year is rapidly approaching: New Year’s Eve (除夕) is on January 25, followed by New Year’s Day (初一) on the 26th. In Taiwan, one of the main events marking this holiday is the annual Taiwan Lantern Festival (台灣燈會), which is now entering its twentieth season. This year’s Festival is timed to start on February 9, which also happens to be the date of the traditionalLantern Festival (元宵節, also known as 上元節 or the more popular 小過年), celebrated on the fifteen day of the first lunar month. It will be held in Yilan 宜蘭 County over a two-week period, marking the first time that this event has been staged on the island’s east coast.

Visitors to the festival (as well as the mass media) pay special attention to the Festival’s main theme lantern (主燈). Because next year will be the Year of the Ox,the new theme lantern is a movable golden-colored statue of the Taiwanese Water Buffalo (台灣水牛; representing the perseverance and dedication Taiwan’s citizens), which towers over 14 meters in height atop a 4.3 meter high pedestal. This particular theme lantern will also be measured against its mighty predecessor of 12 years ago, a giant ox that weighed in at 13,950 kilos, earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. However, one wonders if the fate of this year’s theme lantern will be any different from those before it, most of which have ended up being left to rust and rot. In addition to the theme lantern, approximately 130,000 handheld lanterns called Starlight Ox (星光牛) will be distributed to visitors, especially children.

Apart from all lanterns great and small, one conspicuous feature of the Taiwan Lantern Festival is corporate sponsorship (and the accumulation of symbolic capital). For example, this year’s theme lantern has been sponsored by Chunghwa Telecom (中華電信), while lanterns at previous festivals have been donated by the Grand Hotel (圓山大飯店), the Grand Formosa Regent (台北晶華酒店), and the Fubon Group (富邦集團). Another aspect of the Festival involves marketing. This year’s event, for example, will promote sales of renowned products like Pinglin Baozhong Tea (坪林包種茶) and Dragonfly Glazed Beads from Pingtung (屏東蜻蜓雅築). Similar phenomena have marked the staging of earlier Taiwan Lantern Festivals, the first of which was organized by the Tourism Bureau (觀光局) in 1990as part of a set of activities known as Tourism Week. The festivities have grown exponentially over time, with celebrations like the 2007 Lantern Festival in Chiayi 嘉義 and the 2003 Lantern Festival in Taichung 台中 attracting tens of thousands of people (resulting in massive traffic jams), not to mention leading politicians who take part in the lantern-lighting ceremonies. The cost of a theme lantern has risen as well, and now exceeds NT$10 million (approximately US$300,000).