When bandits often ravaged towns, the practice of lighting sky lanterns grew more widespread in the mid-19th century.
“These were once used as signals for villagers to let their families know they were safe and sound but now they carry people’s wishes and hopes for the new year into the night sky,” says Ally Su of the New Taipei City Government Tourism Planning Division.
“Over time, the Pingxi Lantern Festival has gained a reputation for being the brightest, happiest and most heartwarming event in Taiwan.”
Pingxi is the only place sky lanterns are allowed in Taiwan, as the mountains and water prevent them from flying too far away.
On the last day of the Lunar New Year, the Pingxi Lantern Festival takes place. The festival has been around for over 100 years, and since 1999, the New Taipei City Government started hosting the festival.
But you can set off the lanterns any time of year.
Pingxi streets are filled with lantern shops, each one with different offerings. It’s a fun process, choosing a lantern and writing down wishes with a Chinese calligraphy pen.
There are multiple lantern colors to choose from, with different hues meaning different things, from greater wealth and fame and fortune to marital happiness. There are also lanterns shaped like animals, including cats, monkeys and pandas.
“You can’t just let the lantern go, there’s a ritual to it and a meaning,” says Wang.
For safety reasons, a shop worker lights the lanterns. And to control the flights, Wang says they now use soybean oil versus kerosene, so the lantern is “more stable and doesn’t go as high.”
The lantern is also limited to 60 centimeters in circumference. Any bigger would need a permit, says Wang, a former chairman of the Pingxi Commercial Association and owner of Ming Tong, a local coffee and tourism shop.
To prevent the mountainside from being littered with lanterns, there’s a recycling program in place. Residents can exchange used lanterns at shops for items like toilet paper and detergent. Wang also organizes hikes for locals to retrieve the lanterns that land higher up on the mountain.
If it’s a rainy day, there are other options. For around $1, visitors can write a wish on a piece of bamboo, which is hung along a fence in the village. There’s also a digital lantern option, the most environmentally friendly choice.
For less than $5, all you need to do is write or draw out your wish on a postcard. Then, it’s blown up digitally on a LED lantern outside the local police station, measuring around nine meters tall and four meters wide, for all to see.
This digital lantern is made up of 200,000 LED lights.