Saturday, 4 February 2012

Elephant No. 125: Paper Lantern

I happened across some inexpensive paper lanterns in a discount store last week, and thought it might be interesting to try making one into an elephant.

Paper lanterns likely originated in China, and have been recorded as far back as 230 B.C., when they were used, not as decorations, but for military purposes. Invented by military strategist Zhuge Liang, the first paper lanterns were designed to be sent aloft.

Liang based the shape of his first lantern on the hat he was wearing. Made from oiled rice paper stretched over a bamboo frame, the lantern contained a small candle inside. The hot air from the candle caused the lantern to rise and float across the battlefield as a means of communication. These "sky candles", as they were then known, were used as signals until the third century A.D. Some accounts suggest that they also functioned as spy blimps during this early period, although it's hard to imagine how they could have recorded any kind of information.

By the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1271–1368), paper lanterns were used as symbols of hope and good wishes. Airborne lanterns were used in various rituals, based on the belief that they could carry messages to the gods. People also hung them outside their homes, inscribed with the words "heavenly lantern" or "divine lantern".

Traditional Chinese lanterns.

Paper lanterns were also used in ceremonies such as weddings. Wording on wedding lanterns included messages of respect, and wishes for "a hundred children and a thousand grandchildren." Paper lanterns also became something of a status symbol: the more plentiful and elaborate the lanterns, the more prosperous and important the household.

Lantern festivals are held at various times of the year, particularly to herald the return of spring. According to traditional Chinese belief, lantern festivals symbolize the relationship between people and nature, as well as the higher beings that make it possible for the light of spring to return each year.

Today, paper lanterns are still an important feature of various rituals, ceremonies and festivals. In addition, they represent good fortune and longevity, and a means of communicating with deceased loved ones. They have morphed into a vibrant artistic medium as well, featuring new colours, shapes and elaborate constructions.

Paper lanterns have long been popular in many other countries as well—particularly Japan, which has its own significant paper lantern traditions and styles. In western countries, paper lanterns often feature as part of wedding celebrations, parties, and other special events, during which large numbers of paper lanterns are sent aloft, just as they were more than two thousand years ago. 

Sometimes this causes problems. In the United Kingdom, for example, so many sky lanterns were being released that, in 2009, the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency asked for advance warning. This is because the lanterns can rise as much as a mile into the sky, and could be mistaken for distress signals. Farmers in the U.K. have also expressed concern about the effect of the lanterns on their livestock, as well as the possibility of fires being started when the lanterns touch down.

Sky lanterns being released at a wedding in England.

For today's elephant, I didn't have a clue how I was going to make a paper lantern, even as I was shopping for what I thought I'd need. My idea was to use an existing lantern, cutting out various areas to which I would then attach things like a trunk. I've actually never even studied a paper lantern up close, let alone owned one I could take apart, so I wasn't quite sure what I was in for.

I bought this lantern for $1.25. I bought a spare as well, as I more or less expected to wreck the first one in my ineptitude.

It took me awhile to figure out what the plastic thing was for. I thought it was some kind of stand, and must have looked like a monkey trying to assemble a tent while I played around with it. I eventually realized that the plastic thing is what expands the lantern and helps it hold its shape. For the unitiated like myself, some instructions might have been helpful.

My first disappointment came when I realized that it wasn't spherical as I had expected, but oval. I had a round elephant body with limbs in mind, but I decided that the oval shape would limit me to an elephant head, since it looked ridiculous if hung sideways.

My second disappointment was the dearth of information on how to make or alter a paper lantern. All of the instructions relate to those cylindrical slit-paper lanterns we used to make in grade school. Not really what I had in mind, so I guessed I was on my own.

What surprised me was how few relatively simple animal-shaped lanterns are out there. This seems to be changing, but most animal lanterns appear to be round lanterns with flat bits like ears stuck on. I wanted at least the trunk to be tubular, so this was hardly helpful.

Typical form for an animal lantern.

Another typical animal lantern.

Well, there was round, and then there was this.

Dog lantern produced for the 1st Annual Illumifest of Lights
in West Des Moines, Iowa, U.S.A., 2008.

I wanted light to shine through the trunk, so I decided I'd cut a hole in the existing lantern, make a tubular trunk covered with tissue paper, and add on a couple of flat ears. If it looked like it needed anything else after that, I'd think about it.

I used galvanized wire to make a coiled trunk. I'd say the wire is about 20- or 22-gauge, but you could use anything that holds a reasonable shape. 

To start the trunk, I attached the wire to itself at the top with a small wrap. This is also how I finished the tip.

Since I knew that I'd have to cover the join where the trunk attached to the head, I decided not to cover the trunk itself with tissue paper right away. Instead, I traced the shape of the top of the trunk onto the lantern. I then cut away the paper on the lantern to a slightly smaller diameter than the trunk, without cutting any of the existing lantern coil. It doesn't have to be perfect, because it's going to be covered.

I then wired the trunk coil to the lantern with thin wire, joining it at four spots. I actually pulled the thinner wire out of a twist tie, which worked quite well.

Next, I formed a couple of ear shapes from the same wire that I'd used for the trunk coil.

To attach these to the head, I poked the wire ends through the side of the lantern, and simply bent them down with a stick (since it was hard to get my hand in far enough).

I now had all the wire shapes attached to the lantern, and could start covering them with tissue.

I started with the ear, reasoning that the trunk would be more delicate once it was covered in tissue, so should be left for last. I bought the inexpensive kind of tissue paper you use to stuff in gifts, so it was fairly thin and smooth. This was less of a drawback than I expected it to be, because tissue paper is surprisingly durable for this particular application.

I put a thin bead of white glue along the wire, then attached a flap of tissue paper. Word to the wise: trace your tissue around the ear form before attaching the wire ear to the head, and don't forget to leave a "seam allowance" all the way around. I had to trace the tissue while it was on the head, which is a pretty clumsy exercise. You'll need two tissue ears for each side if you want to cover the wires completely.

I also added a bead of glue to the fold of tissue at the base of the ear, then stuck the tissue to the lantern, which also hid the ugly wire join. To finish the ear, I ran another bead of glue to the inside of the wire, and a bit of glue to the outside rim of tissue, then stuck on the facing piece of tissue. I planned to trim the outside edge of the ear when I was done, so I wasn't too concerned about tidiness at this point.

I finished the other ear the same way, then turned my attention to the trunk. The first thing I thought I should do was cover the tip of the trunk, so that the main trunk covering overlapped it neatly. This was messy and a bit annoying, because the tissue is thin, and the glue bled through. It stuck to my fingers, and my fingers stuck to it, pulling it and tearing it a couple of times before I stopped using my fingers and used a stick instead. This is my third try, and although it's not perfectly neat, it was good enough.

Next I covered the main part of the trunk. Twice. I screwed up badly the first time by not cutting the tissue paper in a large enough cone. This left a gap where the underside of the trunk joined to the lantern. I decided that, rather than try to cut the proper shape beforehand, I'd just glue a big piece of tissue to the front of the coil, let that dry, then glue some more, and so on. This worked better, and I was able to trim off the excess neatly enough. 

This time, I liked the fact that the glue saturated the tissue, because it allowed me to mush it into the crevices, and allowed me to stick on a small patch that is virtually invisible, even with light shining through. It was a messy enterprise, however, and a bit fiddly, so I forgot to photograph the process.

I thought about adding eyes, but decided that might make it a bit cartoonish. This is what the final lantern looks like unlit.

And this is what it looks like lit up, and hanging in my shower.

This wasn't all that difficult, but it was a bit time-consuming in that you have to wait for the glue to dry at various stages—or take a hair dryer to it, like I did.

If I had a few days, rather than a couple of hours, it would be interesting to experiment with different shapes. White glue does a great job of sticking tissue paper to wire, and the shape is really only limited by your imagination. 

My imagination would have been happier if the base lantern had been round rather than oval, but it still looks pretty cool when lit up—better than my photos suggest. It was also far less scary or difficult than I expected, and at $1.25 a lantern, plus a couple of dollars or so for tissue paper, glue and batteries, it's definitely worth a try.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although sky lanterns are lighter than air, elephants obviously aren't. One of the most popular stories in China is the tale of Cao Chong and the weighing of an elephant.

Cao Chong was the son of Cao Cao, a northern ruler during the Three Kingdoms Period (A.D. 220–280). Cao Chong was renowned for his intelligence, even at an early age. When he was about six years old, his father received an elephant as a gift. Cao Cao and his people had never seen an elephant before, as China's elephants had long been driven far to the south. It was bigger than any animal they knew. Soon two questions arose, "How much does it weigh?" and "How can we weigh it?"

A heated discussion arose among Cao Cao's officials. One said, "We must build a huge scale." Another said, "How can we build a scale big enough for such a creature? And how can we be sure the elephant won't step off? The only way to weigh the elephant is to cut it into pieces and weigh those."

People laughed and called the man stupid, ridiculing the idea of killing such a noble animal just to see how much it weighed. 

Little Cao Chong then stepped forward and said, "I know how to weigh the elephant. We must take him to the river."

No one believed that a six-year-old boy could have better ideas than Cao Cao's officials, but since he was the ruler's son, they humoured him.

The elephant was brought to the river, where a boat was waiting. The elephant was coaxed onto the boat, and when the boat stopped rocking under the elephant's weight, the waterline was marked on the side of the boat. The elephant was then led off the boat and back onto dry land. 

Next, the boat was loaded with rocks and boulders until it sat at the same waterline. The rocks were then removed and individually weighed, equalling the weight of the elephant. History doesn't record exactly how much Cao Cao's elephant weighed, but as an Asian elephant, it would have weighed somewhere between 2,500 and 5,400 kilograms (5,500 to 12,000 pounds), depending on its age and gender.

Today, this story is still told to students around the world to teach them the principles of water displacement. Elephants, however, are no longer loaded on and off boats to check their weight. Instead, they are usually weighed on large scales embedded in the floor, allowing them to simply walk on and walk off.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 
Elephants Without Borders

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