80% of China’s lanterns come from this one village

Jan 24, 2020

Every year, the village of Tuntou in northern China churns out more than 80 million lanterns to markets around the world. Most of them used during Lunar New Year.

Red lanterns can be seen in Chinese communities around the world during Lunar New Year, and one small village in China is responsible for making most of them.

The village of Tuntou in Hebei Province, about 200 miles outside Beijing, produces 80% of China’s lanterns. Nearly every family here has a workshop for making lantern parts.

A worker hangs up lanterns at his workshop in Tuntou.
A worker hangs up lanterns at his workshop in Tuntou. / Photo: AFP

Altogether, the village produces more than 80 million lanterns every year, supplying markets across China, Asia, and beyond. It collectively brings in $160 million every year from the business.

(Read more: Inside the lingerie town of China)

Lunar New Year, which falls around January or February, is their busiest time.

“We usually make extra throughout the year,” says 35-year-old Su Lijie, who has been making lanterns since he was in high school, “to stock up for Lunar New Year.”

Su’s workshop makes 200,000 lanterns a year, and nearly every part of the process is done by hand.

Much of the lantern-making process is still done by hand.
Much of the lantern-making process is still done by hand. / Photo: AFP

“There are quite a number of steps to making a lantern, most of it by hand,” Su says. “For example, shaping the metal rods, gluing the glitter, and putting on the cover.’’

His shop makes 1,000 to 2,000 small lanterns a day, plus a few hundred big ones. In one year, his factory might bring in $15,000 to $30,000.

How Tuntou became China’s lantern village

Tuntou has been famous for its lanterns since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), due to its proximity to the capital Beijing. Artisans in the village provided their services to the imperial family.

(Read more: The last artisan in Hong Kong that still hand-makes paper effigies)

Local lore goes that one lantern maker in the village caught the eye of the village leader, who decided to employ him to make a lantern as a gift for the emperor.

The emperor, according to the story, was so impressed that he appointed Tuntou’s craftsmen to be his official palace lantern makers.

Tuntou’s history of lantern making goes back centuries.
Tuntou’s history of lantern making goes back centuries. / Photo: AFP

Although there is no official historical record of this story, the village continues to be famous across China for its lanterns.

“My father’s generation used to make lanterns with bamboo instead of metal rods,” Su recalls. “They would have to bend the bamboo each time.”

But working with the tough material became too time-consuming, and as demand increased, factories switched to metal rods to create lantern frames.

Lanterns for the 21st century

In recent years, the villagers of Tuntou have become more internet-savvy, and younger lantern makers have started online stores to sell their wares.

On Kuaishou, a short-video app similar to TikTok that’s popular among China’s rural set, workshops regularly post videos of their production process and sell directly to individual buyers through the app.

(Read more: Live-streaming apps are helping Chinese farmers sell their produce)

“We used to only sell to regions where the lantern tradition is strong,” Su says, “but in recent years, we’ve received orders from all across China and the world.”

A worker glues glitter onto a lantern in Tuntou.
A worker glues glitter onto a lantern in Tuntou. / Photo: AFP

Su is now preparing to open his own online shop next year. But the rising demand also means less production can be done by hand.

“They used to make literally everything by hand,” he says, “but now parts of the process have been replaced with machines, so we’re making them faster.”

For Su, it’s a welcome development, as long as he can keep the tradition alive.

Chinese New YearFactoriesArtisans

Credit

Producer: Weiyu Qian

Videographer: Yan Chen

Animation: Ray Ngan

Editing and Mastering: Joel Roche