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What are Paper Lanterns?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: May 16, 2024

Paper lanterns are beautiful decorative lanterns originally made of rice or silk paper, covering a light source. As a light source and as decoration, paper lanterns have been popular for 2000 years. They were first made in China during the Han Dynasty, which lasted from 200 BCE to roughly 200 CE. They also became widely popular in Japan under the reign of Prince Shotoku in the 7th century CE, who made tremendous strides toward incorporating Chinese culture and invention into Japanese life.

Due to the thin covering used to make paper lanterns, when lit they are very beautiful, especially when they are colored. They may also carry designs, paintings or screens that show up brilliantly under a light source. The only color not traditionally used in making paper lanterns is white, the color of mourning in many Asian cultures. Though white paper lanterns glow luminously, they are not considered celebratory.

Paper lanterns exhibit various shapes and sizes. A common design is the ball or globe design, which holds its spherical shape by being stretched over strips of bamboo. It is very unusual today to see paper lanterns that hold candles, unless the paper used is flame resistant. It’s simply too easy for them to catch on fire, otherwise. In most cases, the paper lantern has an insert for light bulbs. The can be either battery powered, or connected on a string that has a central plug. It’s not uncommon for paper lanterns to be used as light shades in Asian homes. In fact a few varieties are standing lamps with a paper shade.

Some paper lanterns are tiny. A recent trend is to use spherical paper coverings over Christmas lights to decorate a room. Other paper lanterns are quite large. Some of the round types can have a diameter larger than two feet (61 cm). You can also find cube or rectangular designs, many with lovely painted decorations.

Paper lanterns have remained popular due to their use in important Asian festivals. For example, the Chinese Lantern Festival has been celebrated since the 5th century CE. Streets and buildings are gaily directed with paper lanterns, some unusually large. Celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar (usually February or March on the Western calendar), the Chinese Lantern Festival also features parades, and people participating in or watching the parades may hold small paper lanterns.

Another form of paper lanterns, often called luminaries, can be easily made from brown paper lunch bags. These are frequently popular during Halloween. Jack-o-lantern style designs can be cut out of one side of the bag, and they’re often lit with small candles or tea lights. Still, for safety, it’s better to use a small electric light than a candle to avoid possible fires.

Both luminaries and Asian paper lanterns can be made from scratch or purchased at candle stores, and on various Internet sites. Do look for those that feature flame resistant covering. Consider a string of them, or a few large ones for your next outdoor celebration.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a HomeQuestionsAnswered contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By StreamFinder — On Sep 10, 2010

I love all kinds of paper lanterns, but my personal favorite are the flying paper lanterns. They're not terribly difficult to make; there are a ton of different instructions on the internet.

However, if you just want the effect without the effort of making them,you can get some round outdoor paper lanterns, making sure they are closed on the top, and light a small fire in a metal cup beneath it. The best way to do this is to soak a cotton ball in alcohol, put it in a foil cup, and set it on fire.

Then hold the lamp over the top (not close enough to catch on fire), and let it fill up with the heat and gas released from the fire. It should start to pull away from you and fly in no time!

By naturesgurl3 — On Sep 10, 2010

What would you all think of making rice paper lanterns as a craft for a high school art class? I'm trying to think of something more Asian-themed for my module on Japan.

I was thinking of combining a unit on Japanese paper lanterns with a project creating some hanging paper lanterns that could be put up in the hallways of the school for decoration.

Does anyone have any opinion?

By rallenwriter — On Sep 10, 2010

I love paper lanterns, especially the traditional Chinese paper lanterns.

During the mid-Autumn festival in China, it is really common for people to buy paper lanterns and carry them around at night. Many of them still use the old candle-style lanterns, but in some of the more urban places it's becoming more common to see the battery operated paper lanterns.

Fire risk and all, I still prefer the candle lanterns -- I just think they look prettier.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a HomeQuestionsAnswered contributor,...
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