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Yuyuan Garden Lantern Show: A Distinctive Shanghai Tradition

2023-02-06 10:12:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter MENG JIAXIN
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An aerial view of the 2019 Yuyuan Garden Lantern Show on February 19, 2019 in Shanghai. 

The Yuyuan Garden Lantern Show is a traditional event that takes place every year in Songjiang District of Shanghai. Lantern shows can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.). Later after the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), such events became a cultural fixture in Shanghai. Among all the lantern shows in Shanghai, the one in the Yuyuan Garden is generally considered to be the most captivating. 

The Yuyuan Garden is located in the northeastern part of Shanghai’s old city, adjacent to the city’s iconic spot – City God Temple, and is the only remaining garden from the Ming Dynasty nestled in this metropolis’ old city. For hundreds of years, it has served as the festive center for the Shanghai lantern show. 

Traditionally, the lantern show started on the 13th day of the first month of the lunar calendar, during which residents according to customs hung lit lanterns inside their houses, and then ended on the 18th day of the first lunar month, when people took down the lanterns. Performances of lantern dancing were staged in streets during the days in between. This event began to decline during the late 19th century. Then in 1995, a company in Shanghai relaunched the festival in the Yuyuan Garden. In 2010, the Yuyuan Garden Lantern Show was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage item, turning it into an event to showcase fine cultural heritage and folk customs of the Chinese nation. 

Today, the Yuyuan Garden Lantern Show has three distinct features. One is that every year, there are lanterns made in the shape of the animal of the Chinese zodiac for that year. As 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit, visitors discover that there are many lanterns depicting rabbit images, among which the most eye-catching is the lantern called "jade rabbit rising in the east." 

The second feature is a large group of themed lanterns that interpret traditional Chinese culture and lantern culture. For example, this year’s lantern show draws inspiration from the Chinese mythology of The Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing). At the entrance to the Yuyuan Garden stands the spring, summer, autumn, and winter gods from the Shan Hai Jing. In the Jiuqu Bridge area, a band of well-known mythical creatures from the mythology spring to life one after another, each intricately sculpted, colored, and positioned. This variety of lanterns all together creates a visual feast and immersive experience of lantern customs and traditional Chinese culture. 

The third feature is the integration of modern technology with traditional craftsmanship, as well as the use of multimedia, bringing the light show to a next level. As the night closes in, the gorgeous lanterns light up the ancient-style buildings in the Yuyuan Garden. This year, the garden has also utilized augmented reality technology, uploading the entire lantern show into a metaverse, enabling audiences to visit the Shan HaiJ ing-styled lantern show on their cellphones. 

Every year during the Lantern Festival, the Yuyuan Garden turns out to be one of the most bustling places in Shanghai and even in east China. With the combination of traditional lantern displays and modern technologies, as well as an abundance of distinct Chinese cultural elements, the lantern show carries on celebrations for the traditional Chinese New Year and sends auspicious blessings for the coming year.  

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