What Do Chinese Lanterns Symbolize?

Chinese lantern image by Mikhail Olykainen from Fotolia.com

Chinese lanterns originated around 230 B.C. and are considered to be the earliest of all portable lighting devices. They are used today for celebrations and holidays. Once believed to ward off evil spirits, they uphold centuries old traditions, and symbolise both China's past and emerging future.

Made of paper, Chinese lanterns are found throughout the world. Their elaborate designs bring the past and the present together.


The Chinese Lantern Festival takes place on the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese New Year. Many myths explain why Chinese lanterns developed, but one stands out: During the first century, Emperor Mingdi sent a scholar to India to find Buddhist scriptures after having a dream about a golden man who rose into the sky. When the scholar returned, the Emperor ordered the building of a temple to house the scriptures and a statue of Buddha, and ordered the display of lanterns to symbolise Buddha's power to dispel the darkness.

Significance of Color

Chinese red lanterns image by Paul O'Hearn from Fotolia.com

Chinese lanterns can be any colour, but red is traditionally used in conjunction with other colours. Each colour has its own meaning, but meanings can change depending on the context. Red represents happiness and good luck; white, purity, old age and wisdom. Yellow and gold represent the first emperor, but also earth and mourning. Blue is associated with immortality, while black stands for honesty as well as death or misfortune.

Significance of the Elements

Symbols of the elements are used on Chinese lanterns. Philosophically, there are five elements in the physical universe that balance each other to keep the world together. Each element is associated with one of five primary colours. Red represents fire; black means water. Blue is associated with wood, while white is a reference for metals. Yellow represents the Earth and its core.

Lucky Symbols

Lucky symbols are important in Chinese culture, so lanterns are decorated with drawings or calligraphy representing them. Someone wanting to do well on a test might decorate a lantern with a bearded sage, while someone seeking a bright future might put on his lantern the symbol for a woman with fruit. Those blessed with plenty might use fish or bees to represent their abundance, while a survivor might use a clock to remember someone who has died. Red bats represent good fortune.

Chinese Dragons

Chinese decoration image by Luisafer from Fotolia.com

Chinese lanterns are made of paper stretched over frames and can be either simple or elaborate shapes. Dragons, which symbolise strength and goodness as well as vigour and excellence, are a more elaborate shape for a lantern. Many Chinese believe dragons are where dinosaur bones come from; these beliefs have been around for centuries. Dragons are considered to be kind guardians looking out for humanity.