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Craftsmen seek brighter future for Cantonese-style palace lantern
Update: 2018-03-08     Source: eguangzhou.gov.cn
Rosewood palace lanterns, originally created by craftsmen from Guangzhou during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), were historically offered as special tributes to royal families. Their popularity peaked during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when they began to be exported abroad in large numbers, receiving great acclaim and becoming widely known among overseas customers simply as "Chinese Lanterns".

The Cantonese-style rosewood palace lanterns are divided into four-sided, six-sided and eight-sided works and feature carvings of dragon and phoenix patterns, which are common patterns traditionally found on Cantonese wood carving products. Glass with delicate hand-painted designs is used as a lampshade on these lanterns, which distinguishes them from Beijing palace lanterns, whose lampshades are often made of silk.

The traditional method of making Cantonese-style palace lanterns involves a range of procedures, including selecting the appropriate rosewood, chiseling, tenoning, and painting, each step being crucial to the success of the piece.

No discussion of Cantonese-style palace lanterns can occur without mentioning Luo Zhaoliang, a household name in Guangzhou, who is famed for not only crafting lanterns of unrivaled beauty, but also rescuing the art of handmade Cantonese rosewood lanterns from extinction.

Luo Zhaoliang, a Cantonese-style rosewood palace lantern maker, uses a file to polish the lantern. [Photo/oeeee.com]  

At the Intangible Cultural Heritage Exhibition Zone, a part of the ongoing Eighth Cantonese Temple Fair running from March 2-8 in Guangzhou, Luo's lantern booth is consistently packed to the gills with visitors. Unlike other vendors, Luo is more focused on spreading the culture of Cantonese-style rosewood lanterns than any kind of financial profit, meaning most of his works were sold at a reasonable price to people who truly appreciate the craft.

Luo Zhaoliang shows off one of his rosewood palace lanterns. [Photo/oeeee.com]

Luo Guojian, son of Luo Zhaoliang, has inherited the Guangdong artform from his father. He joined his father's cause 20 years ago and has since become a master in carving and design. In addition to preserving traditional lantern-making techniques, Luo Guojian also explores new design methods, trying his best to reach a balance between the needs of his customers and the continuation of a centuries-old artform.

Mini palace lanterns are one example of the many innovations Luo Guojian has made since inheriting the family business. The small-sized rosewood lanterns, at a whopping 13 centimeters, are four times smaller than the standard lanterns and sold like hot cakes at the temple fair.

"I hope to expand the palace lantern market and give full play to their potential as a Cantonese cultural heritage item," he said, claiming that the lanterns possess unique Cantonese culture elements and are different from common souvenirs sold at tourist attractions.

Largely thanks to the dedication of the Luo family, the art of Cantonese-style rosewood palace lanterns was listed as a Guangdong intangible cultural heritage item in 2010. The number of craftsmen making the lanterns has grown bigger than ever with the arrival of two post-90s inheritors -- Chen Xiaolei and Zhang Yi.

Three generations of lantern makers, Luo Zhaoliang (L2), Luo Guojian (R2) and the apprentices, pose for a group photo. [Photo/ycwb.com] 

For Hu, an art graduate from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, it was love at first sight. She is now learning to paint the lantern glass from her teacher. Filled with admiration for the ancient palace lantern craftsmen who were able to make such delicate works, the young girl seeks to preserve the artisan spirit.

"For me, money is not the most important factor when it comes to looking for a job; I just want to do something that I really like," she said.

Zhang is now an expert in tenoning, a key step in assembling the lantern frame, which requires both skill and experience. "By fitting the six mortises with the six tenons on the lantern holder, I can now complete the lanterns with my own two hands."

"We'd like to create something new," said 80-year-old Luo Zhaoliang while discussing his role in preserving the artform. "We will explore new lantern designs and continue to spread Cantonese culture."

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