The Chinese New Year
After the sleepless and restless New Year’s celebrations on the Gregorian calendar, you’ll need to prepare yourself with another world-renowned festival in Taiwan – Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. This festive holiday falls on different dates in the Gregorian calendar according to the exact day of the Chinese New Year, which generally falls between the end of January and the end of February. For example, in 2023, the sky lantern festival will fall on February 5.
This festivity is not only observed by people of Chinese descent in countries like China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia but is also celebrated among communities with lots of ethnic Chinese residents in Southeast Asia and North America. If you’re an astrologist, you’ll want to know this night festival is always held on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunar calendar.
Pingxi District of New Taipei City
Culturally speaking, Sky lanterns can be seen in many countries. In Taiwan, however, the festival is highly related to a remote rural township of New Taipei City – Pingxi District. It’s idyllically located to the east of Taipei City (not to confuse with New Taipei City, which is the most populous municipality in Taiwan) and is roughly one hour’s drive from downtown Taipei without traffic jams.
This town is beautifully flanked by lush green hills to the north and the south with the Keelung River running evenly from the west to the east in its administrative area. The river course in the district is pretty flat, hence the name Pingxi, literally “flat river”. Since the early 20th century, the river mountain valley has been crowded with people coming from outside – at the beginning, coal miners, and in the end, tourists.
We can still see lots of equipment, buildings, machinery, and the like deserted in the region. Some of them have been successfully turned into museums, but there are some, sadly, still partially covered by growing roots of giant banyan trees or engulfed by endless patches of silver grasses. When the coal mines couldn’t satisfy the need of the country in the 80s, “coal” rushers left and the locals mourned for their loss of nature’s gift.
Why Do They Release Sky Lanterns?
It is said that the tradition of releasing sky lanterns in Pingxi can be traced back to Shifen Village in the early nineteenth century. The birthplace of this heritage, Shifen Village currently has the most sky lantern shops in the district. In the old days, the locals set off sky lanterns made of paper simply to pray for blessings and it’s believed this tradition was brought here by these immigrants from Fujian of China nearly two hundred years ago.
Taiwan is a small island country, but our sky lanterns seem to be larger than those elsewhere. It’s about one meter tall from the bottom to the top and the opening at the bottom is, in comparison, a bit smaller than the diameter of the head part of this paper hot-air balloon. Nowadays people celebrate the tradition with wishes written on the four sides of the paper lanterns before a fire is lit up at the bottom of the colorful paper handicrafts.
Tourists enjoy composing their ambitious wishes on the sky lanterns before they can release the lantern with their friends or family members on the railway tracks. Yes, on the railroad! Shifen Village is one of the few villages in the world where the train runs between two lines of houses and shops and superstitious Taiwanese interestingly believe that the railway can speed up the sky lantern into outer space!
Rich Symbolism on Taiwan’s Sky Lanterns
If you can get a close look at the design of Taiwanese sky lanterns, you’ll find that the bottom opening is circular but the top of the sky lantern has a square patch seamed by four wider strips of paper down to the bottom. According to folklore, this type of design uses the T-shaped wire at the opening to symbolize “boys” and the square at the top, which resembles the Chinese character “mouth”, to denote “girls”. So, boys and girls together become the things the locals want to pray for – bingo, kids! Our forefathers wanted to pray for general blessings as well as posterity because, in an agricultural society, luck and offspring guarantee thriving families.
Nowadays sky lanterns are made in many different colors. Visitors can choose a color they desire according to their mood and the meaning of each color. The right color can probably double your chance of success if the heavenly being is also an artist.
New Taipei City’s Annual Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival is an important festival celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunisolar Chinese calendar. It’s observed nationwide and, in southern Taiwan, the “beehive fireworks festival” in the Yanshui District of Tainan City used to gain more followers on Instagram – or, TV at that time! Thanks to the burgeoning international tourism business in the country since the turn of the new millennium, the focus of the celebration started to shift to New Taipei City’s sky lantern festival because, I guess, it’s much gentler and a lot easier. What’s more, the city government has successfully made it an international night festival with the amazing image of hundreds of sky lanterns released at the same time into the dark sky.
Potentially a fire hazard, releasing the sky lanterns is only allowed within the area of 100 meters from the riverbank roughly between Jingtong and Shifen villages. Each year the activity is separately held in three venues, i.e., Jingtong Elementary School, Pingxi Junior High School, and Shifen Square. Details are subject to change due to the schedule of the New Taipei City government.
More to Discover
Pingxi Village is one of the seven railway stations on the Pingxi Line of Taiwan Railways Administration. This railroad branch was established in 1921 for the purpose of transporting coals from the bustling mineshafts along the way. Pingxi Station is the biggest station with an island platform. Some TV commercials and movie scenes chose the station area as the background, making it strongly reminiscent of Taiwan in the 70s and 80s and the difficult economic condition of the villagers in those mountain villages.
If you’re more of an avid hiker, don’t forget to visit the Little Niagra Falls of Taiwan – Shifen Waterfall. This cascade-like curtain-type waterfall is 40 meters wide and 20 meters tall. It’s formed on the fault line and, thanks to comparatively heavier precipitation, there are dozens of smaller waterfalls nearby. This popular scenic spot is only about 30 minutes’ walk from the Shifen Village. As soon as you get there, you’ll find a loop path near the comfort station and I’ll recommend you spend just around five minutes walking to Platform Three, which is located right in front of the waterfall and is the best photo point. You’ll be certainly amazed by the magnificence of the river valley scenery.
Shifen Village is 24-7 but shops selling paper sky lanterns generally open between 9AM and 7PM. The Shifen Waterfall scenic area is a must if you happen to visit Shifen Village and the path leading to the waterfall has gates, which open at 9 a.m. and close at 5 p.m.
It’s free of charge although the waterfall trails are closed during the night.
How to get there?
Many domestic tourists travel by train. The Pingxi Line is one of the three railway branch lines of TRA. No matter where you start out your journey, you can take the train to a station called Sandiaoling, which connects to Pingxi Line. I strongly recommend the One Day Pass for Pingxi Line & Shen’ao Line to you at a cost of only NT&80. You can actually spend the whole day hopping on and off the stations along the line. You’ll find this a great bargain!
Useful Tips While Visiting
Too hot in summer?
The villages along the Pingxi Line can be beautiful summer retreats. The misty hills in winter are, needless to say, picturesque. In summer, the upper stretch of the Keelung River running slowly through the spectacular green mountains can be a pleasant scene, too.
Shifen Village has dozens of shops, eateries, and vendors to satisfy your stomach. If you prefer a western-style café, you can find some, too. I’ll recommend, however, a local bakery named “Zhou Wan-zhen Bakery”. Try these traditional snacks such as their popular “curry cakes” and “mung bean cakes” to do as the Romans do when in Rome. Other good news is that there’s finally a convenience store in the village, which was opened just about two years ago and is at the eastern end of Shifen old street.
If your time is limited and you want to join a tour, try Edison Travel Service’s Experience Pingxi Sky Lantern and Shifen Waterfall from Taipei. If you have a bit more time, you can also sign up for the Yeliu, Jiufen & Pingxi Day Tour from Taipei.
By the way, Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival Day Tour from Taipei is now available with limited seats. Book your seat ASAP!