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The Figure Behind the Brilliance

The Figure Behind the BrillianceThe 12-meter-tall “Monkeys Presenting Peaches” (祥猴獻桃) lantern in the secondary lantern area of the 2016 Taiwan Lantern Festival, and the “Confucius Travels Through All the Kingdoms” (孔子周遊列國) and “Procession of Wang Zhaojun (昭君出塞)” lanterns in the Glorious History theme area of the 2014 Taipei Lantern Festival, were created by a national treasure, master lantern artist Chen Zurong (陳祖 榮). A lantern that he produced for the 2013 Taipei Lantern Festival, entitled “Traditional Temple Parade” (傳統藝陣), was the first-ever work representing Taipei City at the Seoul Lantern Festival, displayed with other beautiful lanterns along the Cheonggyecheon waterway. On display in Chen’s studio are countless lanterns of various sizes. From the diversity of goggles, pliers, fabrics, ribbons, light bulbs, wires, and solders, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the complexity and sophistication involved in lantern making.

Midlife Career Change – Devotion to Lantern Art

The story of how Chen became a lantern artist can be described as a classic case of a midlife career change. After graduating from Fu-Hsin Trade & Arts School (復興美工), he spent his youth seeking a stable income. He first worked in the news department of the China Television Company, beginning as a satellite news gathering (SNG) truck driver and eventually working his way up to dispatch chief.

The eye-catching secondary lantern“Monkeys Presenting Peaches” displayedat the 2016 Taiwan LanternFestival. (Photo: Chen Zurong)Though enjoying a secure existence, his inner creative soul caused him to become restless. In 1998 he participated in a lantern competition organized by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau (觀光局), and received a certificate of excellence. Chen then began creating lanterns in his spare time. In 2009, after retiring from his full-time job, Chen finally opened his own company, and devoted himself completely to lantern making.

Now, at the age of 63, he smiles as he says, “A lantern that is well made can bring both fame and profit. But it is very hard work, and there is a lot of pressure. Since I began lantern making I have not been able to enjoy the Lunar New Year holidays. From the beginning of this period, I have to work day and night to complete my lanterns in time for the Lantern Festival.” He has invested nearly 20 years of his life creating lanterns.

To date, the greatest challenge in his career has been a secondary lantern created for the 2015 Taiwan Lantern Festival, entitled “Joyous Spring of the Phoenix” (鳳凰嬉春). “This work was 14 meters in height,” he states. “Just the wings were eight meters. I had to take into consideration the possibility of strong winds and heavy rain, and was very worried that this phoenix would really fly!” He constantly sought advice from more experienced artists, and spent every day at a metalworking factory researching how to strengthen the steel-bar structure. A team of 10 people and over three months of hard work were required to finish this large-scale art piece which weighed more than one ton. The result a successful rendering of the legendary image of the phoenix.

A Man of Great Versatility– Learning the Craft Through Experience

Chen differs from traditional lantern makers in that his first step in the creative process is the production of a sketch. To ensure the proper proportions of the lantern, he then tests transparency variations in different cloth thicknesses, uses light bulbs of different brightness for dispersity of light sources, and adds LED light strips for multi-colored effect. Moreover, he makes use of motors to produce animation, such as swaying of the head, rotation, and blinking of the eyes. Remote-control devices are integrated to control LED-blinking speed and color changes. At the same time, he has overcome the problem of electricity leakage due to rain by developing plastic covers for the light bulbs.

Each time he commits to producing a lantern, he works tirelessly for a long period. “Traditional Temple Parade,” developed for the 2013 Taipei Lantern Festival, featured dozens of light groups, and took two months to complete. He read books related to traditional temple parades to understand the associated allusions, shapes, and other components. He smiles again as he says, “To produce a lantern really requires a full complement of skills, including design, frame, structure, metalworking , electricity, welding, and painting. You have to understand all of it. You must also consider details such as assembly and transport to ensure the consummate presentation in the eyes of the crowds.”

Chen says that most lanterns are used for celebrations. Therefore, producing a happy atmosphere is very important. During the day a lantern is a work of art, and at night it becomes a dazzling light installation. It must be attractive both day and night. “An outstanding lantern must make a powerful first impression,” he states. “If people like it at first sight, this means that the colors, proportions, and form have all been meshed properly. Moreover, structure and craftsmanship are key, including the overall work, the cloth neatly pulled into place, wire frame, wire connections, and painted embellishments. All are indispensable.” Passing on Lantern Making Techniques – Showcasing ‘The Light of Taiwan’ Chen has recently served as chair of the Chinese Artistic Lantern Association (中華花燈藝術學會).

Any free time in his busy schedule is used to promote lantern art. For many years, he has been engaged in the passing on of techniques at detention centers, and has also taught at his alma mater, Fu-Hsin Trade and Arts School. In preparation for the upcoming Taiwan Lantern Festival in Yunlin (雲林), he has been spending time there providing guidance to schools and teachers throughout the county in the hope of having this art form become more prevalent on school campuses. He has represented Taiwan on many occasions at exhibitions or by giving lectures in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, allowing the world to see “the light of Taiwan.”

Lantern Artist Chen Zurong, Man of Many Talents

Although he has long been considered a national treasure for his lantern-making skills, he says in all modesty that, “I learn as I create. I observe the works of others in the hope that my painting and proportions can become more refined.” Talking about the soon-to-be-held 2017 Taipei Lantern Festival at Beimen and in Ximending area in the city’s west district, he says that he is already concentrating on designs that combine light art with the local landscape, in the expectation of providing the public with innovative new works.

Article _ Fan Yujie
Photos _ Shi Chuntai, Chen Zurong

Source: TAIPEI Quarterly