The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month when children are given beautiful star lanterns and shadow lanterns. Alongside these they are gifted clown masks and lion masks for a special evening performance. This year, the festival falls on September 27.
Nguyen Van Quyen, who has spent over 70 years making lanterns for children, said the Mid-autumn festival is based on a story of a bear eating the moon-a story which is related to the lunar eclipse.
“Based on that story, adults let children play drums and music loudly on this day to drive away the bear,” he explains. “But nowadays, this festival really simply for kids to have fun, and it is also an opportunity to bring them closer to traditional toys and games,” he added.
About a month before the festival, Chinese toys such as battery-powered lanterns, robots, and dolls appear on Ha Noi’s toy street, Luong Van Can.
Hoa, the owner of a toy store, said, “Star lanterns and shadow lanterns go on sale about one or two weeks before Mid-autumn festival. Almost every year, they go out of stock quickly. Although toys that are made in China seem more appealing, many customers still choose to buy Vietnamese traditional toys on this occasion.”
Another lantern maker, Nguyen Van Quyen, lives and works in Dan Vien village, about 20 kilometres south of the capital centre. Taking out a shadow lantern from last year’s festival, he describes that it is made of wax paper covering a bamboo frame.
A candle inside helps spin propellers, each of which is connected to a paper figure. The shadows of those figures then appear on the wax paper. The spinning propellers cause the movement of the shadows, giving the impression that they are running in a circle inside.
The paper figure is replaceable and children can create any figure they like. “People used to make figures of Vietnamese farmers and workers, but now I choose Vietnamese fairy tale characters such as peacocks and water buffalo to bring traditional stories to children,” Quyen shared.
According to the old lantern maker, a myth says that a shadow lantern resents filial piety: “There was a young boy whose father died early and he stayed at home to take care of his sick mother. Worrying that his mother would be sad when he went out to make a living, he invented the shadow lantern so his mother could be entertained by the moving figures. The story spread and it reached the king. After visiting the son’s house, the king was touched and he suggested all citizens make shadow lantern in honour.”
Compared to a shadow lantern, the star lantern’s design is much simpler. It is a star-shaped bamboo frame covered with coloured cellophane. “Star lanterns represent the real star that our ancestors wanted to pick from the sky and give to the children. Because there were many stars in the fall, our ancestors came up with the idea of making star lanterns for their children to play with, along with the dragon dance,” said Quyen. “It gives the kids a feeling that they can reach the sky and it therefore encourages them to have big dreams and discover the world.”
“You need to patiently watch the figures and remember the story behind them to know how meaningful it is,” Quyen shares. He adds that when he was small, he had to walk for up to four kilometres to the market and could sell only one or two lanterns. “Farmers in the old time had to work all day so they had little time for such things,” he recalled.
Quyen adds that the shadow lantern started becoming popular in the market about 10 years ago. “That was when the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology invited me to participate in an event regarding the preservation of traditional toys. My role was to teach students to make star and shadow lanterns,” he said.
From then on, the amount of lanterns sold has been increasing every year. In 2014, Quyen sold about 200. “I make them mainly because of my love for this tradition. I don’t want it to fall into oblivion,” he shared.
A dying trade
Not many people want to dedicate their time to this trade because it does not bring much profit. “We make lanterns 100% by hand, with materials bought on Hang Ma street. It takes one whole day to make a shadow lantern, but we can only sell it for VND100,000 (US$4.5). In terms of income, this is not an appealing job,” Quyen explained.
Meanwhile, star lanterns sell very well and they are usually out of stock well before the festival. Each lantern costs around VND10,000, but this barely covers the cost of producing them.
“If we increase the price, we cannot compete with Chinese toys. Because we care about preserving this culture more than our income, we keep on going,” said Quyen.
Quyen believes that in order to preserve this tradition the authorities and sponsors should work together to organize more traditional events. “We hope that people can see the beauty of traditional games and toys,” she said.
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