Chinese Lantern Festival Comes to Charleston

Nov 7, 2019

A 20 foot dragon built by the Zigong Lantern Group welcomes visitors to Magnolia Plantation.
Credit Victoria Hansen/SC Radio

America's oldest gardens will blossom this winter with an ancient Chinese tradition; a lantern festival.

A glowing 20 foot dragon will greet visitors as Magnolia Plantations and Gardens opens at night for the first time since becoming a Charleston tourist attraction in 1870.  The Zigong Lantern Group of China has been busy building more than 20 displays that will illuminate nine acres.

"It's coming together piece by piece," says Public Relations and Marketing Manager Herb Frazier.  "Every element and every stage of it reveals yet another level of beauty."  Frazier has worked at Magnolia for nine years and has never seen anything like it.

The work began months ago with the arrival of nearly a dozen, 40 foot shipping containers at Charleston's port. Hundreds of craftsmen in Zigong China had already begun designing pieces for the festival and were ready to finish the project on site. 

The dragon, for example, is the company's largest ever.  It's made of 4 tons of steel, cut and curved into the shape of a fiery beast.  Its scales are stacked with 26,000 pieces of blue and white china ware sewn into place with 100,000 yards of thread.  It is tedious work to say the least.

Lantern craftsman Hong Jun Deng attaches porcelain plates with thread to a dragon sculpture to create the creature's scales.
Credit Victoria Hansen/SC Radio

"The reality of how big this was did not hit me until we got everything set up and we got to looking at the power it was going to take to run this," says Magnolia's Executive Director Tom Johnson.

Johnson says the  generators alone required to power the displays will cost $25,000 a month.  The festival opens November 15th and runs through March 15th.

Chinese lanterns handmade for first lantern festival at Charleston's Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
Credit Victoria Hansen/SC Radio

Chinese Lantern Festivals have been celebrated for centuries, typically on the 15th day of the first month of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; falling in February or early March.

Initially, the lanterns were simple spheres or cylinders almost always red to signify good luck.  Today they have evolved into complex designs, including the shapes of animals.  They can symbolize people letting go of the past and becoming something new.

The Zigong Lantern Group has put together festivals in bigger cities like Miami, Florida and Nashville, Tennessee.  This is their first project in Charleston and they've already signed on to return for two more years.

This year, the lantern group wanted to do something special to reflect the Lowcountry's unique landscape so it designed an American alligator out of steel and silk. It will be placed near Magnolia's garden ponds where its eyes will glow at night, just like the real reptile.

"You will get a great visual effect on not only the lantern lit at night, but the reflection of the light off the water is going to enhance what you see above water," says Frazier. 

Silk alligator designed by Zigong Lantern Company to reflect Lowcountry wildlife
Credit Victoria Hansen/SC Radio

Members of the Chinese lantern team expressed some fear  about setting up the lanterns so close to the water where gators roam.  But they are pleased to hear their design is life like. 

There will be a ribbon cutting ceremony Tuesday November 12th with what else; a six foot long ribbon celebrating a festival first for Charleston.