Of all the ancient Chinese festivals, Pingxi's Lantern Festival has best been re-imagined for the modern age, with spectacular light shows, live concerts and giant glowing mechanical lanterns. Yet one of the best spectacles is still the simplest and most traditional: the sky lantern release.
A tiāndēng (天燈; sky lantern) is a large paper lantern with a combustible element attached to the underside. When the element is lit, hot air rises into the lantern sack and the lantern floats into the sky like a hot-air balloon.
In Pingxi people have been sending sky lanterns into the air for generations. Long ago, the remote mountainous villages were prone to attacks from bandits and marauders. Sky lanterns were used to signal to others, often women and children, to get packing and head into the high hills at the first sign of trouble. But today it's all about the sublime thrill of watching glowing colourful objects float up against a dark sky.
The festival takes place on two or three weekends in February, one of which is likely to coincide with the Spring Lantern Festival (元宵節), which occurs on the 15th day of the first lunar month. During the festival, there are shuttle buses all day to the site. And after dark, lanterns are released en masse every 20 minutes. Events take place at various venues, including Pingxi Junior High (平溪國中), Qingtong Junior High (青桐國小) and Shifen Sq (十分廣場).
If you wish to light your own lantern, remember first to write some special wish on it. As it floats away to the heavens repeat your wishes to yourself…and pray your lantern doesn't burn up prematurely and crash down into the crowds, or light a tent on fire, as occasionally happens.
Which gets us to the last point. Over the past two years, the local township has allowed the sale and release of sky lanterns at any time, and anywhere. The surrounding forests are now littered with the ugly shells of spent lanterns and it is only a matter of time before there is a major fire. If you wonder why we endorse the Lantern Festival release, it's because at this time all roads to the area are closed, fire trucks are on hand to deal with any incidents, there are postfestival clean-up crews, and it is also a very wet time of the year (making the risk of a forest fire negligible). During the rest of the year there are zero precautions. Act responsibly if you visit the area.