Made in Taiwan: The Lantern Festival

The Chinese New Year is in full swing. In Taiwan, the celebrations include a Lantern Festival of epic proportions, a spectacular light show that fills the night sky with colour


Taiwan’s cross-island highway slices through the country’s north-south mountain range, linking the underpopulated, Pacific-facing east coast and the more densely peopled west coast. That’s where most of the towns and cities are, where most of the country’s 23 million people live, on a fertile coastal plain peering across the strait of Taiwan towards the “other” China – the People’s Republic.

The highway – for the most part, an ordinary two-lane road – is one of those great routes that really should be journeyed on motorbike. I am in a car, however, with Moira, my wife, and Albert, our endlessly helpful and knowledgeable guide.

Retired from Taiwan’s diplomatic service, Albert is the epitome of gentlemanly good manners and a repository of vast amounts of information: he seems to know as much about the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties as he does about contemporary Taiwan’s foreign policy imperatives and is delighted at the slightest interest shown in any of them.

The road curls upwards, hugging the contours of the Taroko gorge, a deep ravine created by the Li Wu river carving through marble and gneiss. The rocks are products of the Pacific ring of fire on which sits Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, the surviving outpost of pre-revolutionary China, the one Mao Zedong turned into his communist state in 1949, the nationalists retreating in defeat to off-shore Taiwan.

At times, the road is so overhung by rock it is like passing through a one-sided tunnel. Our driver, Mr Tien, a man of few words but with a playful smile, proceeds carefully but it’s impossible to resist the urge to stoop as the vehicle scoots under yet another half million tons hanging overhead, while below it gets harder and harder to see the river as it shrinks further and further away at the bottom of the gorge.

Much of the road was built during the years of the Japanese occupation which lasted from 1895 until the Empire of Japan suffered total defeat at the end of the second World War.

During the 50 years of colonial rule, the island experienced something of an industrial and economic leap forward and, surprising to an outsider, locals appear to hold little resentment towards their former overlords, preferring instead to accentuate the positive.

At one point along the highway, there’s a memorial bust to a road engineer who was Japanese. “It is better to remember what was good,” says Albert, ever the diplomat. “It avoids disharmony.”

On up into the mountains, we rise through dense jungle (bamboo plants are four storeys high), and mountain-hugging clouds until we are deep in snow and biting cold. Ferocious winds have sculpted shards of ice onto every object, giving trees, rocks and fence posts a still, frozen, and startled appearance.

Tyre chains – an absolute must to get through the 3,000m-above-sea-level pass – are rented from roaming groups of enterprising aboriginal Taiwanese. They make up about 2 per cent of the population, the rest being ethnic Han Chinese, the vast bulk of whom are descendants of those refugees from Mao.

Through the pass, we descend the mountain range, noting on the way down an incongruous pagoda peeking through the jungle, home to some hermit-like Buddhist monks and packs of roving monkeys.

We travelled on down into Nantou city to our main destination and the reason for our visit: the 2014 Lantern Festival, which the Taiwanese will tell you proudly is one of the world’s great festivals – a line given to them by the Discovery Channel.

The Lantern Festival is held annually, 15 days after the start of the Chinese New Year which last year was the Year of the Horse. This year it’s the Year of the Goat and New Year’s Day is February 19th.

We got to the festival site through night streets crammed with vehicles and people. What seemed like thousands of square acres were ablaze with lights inside millions of lanterns – some tiny, some vast displays telling stories. They had been created by representative communities from all over the island.

The spectacular light show filled the night sky with the colours of the rainbow; the air was alive with the animated chatter of families. Hundreds upon hundreds of illuminations were formed into triumphal arches, streets turned into light tunnels and everywhere, displays of cartoon-like people, and fruit, vehicles, buildings – just about anything that could be made from paper and wire and shaped so that a light could be placed inside.

And, of course, there were lots and lots of tigers and dragons.

The centrepiece a year ago was a horse with 200,000 lights attached to him – a giant prancing fellow who pirouetted every 20 minutes or so to the sound of suitably epic music and coloured laser beams slicing the darkness.

Children stared, awestruck.

The next day and in another part of Nantou County, the Chung Tai Chan Buddhist monastery loomed vast in the distance as we approached. It cost about €900 million to build but the money was raised, with quiet determination by the zen monks, in just 10 years.

A place of spiritual cultivation and refuge, as it describes itself, it was built of granite and is entered through four giant brass doors, each weighing 5.5 tons. A monumental entrance hall is held up by four stone statues of double-faced kings, each weighing 120 tons.

The building, which has 37 floors and contains within itself a seven-storey high wooden pagoda, is home to over 1,000 monks, one in four of whom is female. A library contains over 1,000 religious texts from the Ming dynasty; a new museum will house more than 2,000 stone carving rubbings that are coming from mainland China.

On top of it all, inside a golden dome clad in Chinese juniper wood, there sits a little cross-legged Buddha, Maitreya Buddha, a mere couple of feet tall, tiny compared to the giants elsewhere in the monastery, but he and not the others represents the achievement of pure enlightenment.

The whole affair was constructed, says the vice abbot, the Venerable Jian Yun Shifu, because “we feel the people’s need”.

And with that Albert whisks us off to Yeh Lui, a wind and wave sculpted sandstone park on the edge of the sea in the far north, and nearby, to a feast of seafood in a small fishing village that was pure Nirvana.


Peter Murtagh was a guest of the Taiwanese tourism authorities.
Moira Murtagh flew with China Airlines, Taiwan’s national carrier, for around €900 return;
This year’s Lantern Festival will be held in Taichung City, next to Nantou County, from March 5th-15th,

Other attractions in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, include Taipei 101, the world’s fourth tallest building; the National Palace Museum, home to thousands of artefacts from mainland China; the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, dedicated to the founder of modern Taiwan; and the JinGuaShi Gold Mining Museum Park. Further information from the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan,

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.