Meaning & History of Sky Lanterns

Best known as the floating variety of traditional paper Chinese lanterns, Sky lanterns are distinguished by their air-borne beauty when released as a symbol of hope on festivals and other special occasions.

In China they are also called Kongming lanterns, and they have further been referred to as sky candles or fire balloons.

These delightful constructions are normally made from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame, with a small candle or fuel cell composed of a waxy flammable material inside. When they are lit, the flame works to heat up the air inside the lantern, which causes it to rise up into the air and float gently until the flame dies out.

History of Sky Lanterns

Chinese lore claims that the Kongming lantern was the world’s first hot air balloon. It was named after its inventor, the Chinese sage and military strategist Zhuge Liang, who was addressed as Kongming and wore a hat that resembled a lantern.

Some people argue however that it is likely that the real creator of the Kongming lantern is not known, since the Chinese traditionally attributed great discoveries to renowned historical figures rather than to the actual inventors.

At the turn of the 3rd century, these floating mini-balloons were originally used as a type of spy blimp during the Warring States period.



Although originally strategically used in China for military purposes, sky lanterns later became popular with children at carnivals. They then became increasingly used at festivals, most notably during the Chinese Mid-Autumn and Lantern Festivals.


In the Pingxi District of New Taipei City, there is a popular annual Lantern Festival where hundreds of sky lanterns are released.


The Thai’s use the word Khom loi, meaning “floating lanterns”. They are extremely popular in certain festivals in Thailand, and the people consider it good luck to release a sky lantern since it symbolises their problems and worries floating away.

A major festival held annually in Northern Thailand is called “Yi Peng”. It is celebrated on a full moon of the 2nd month of the Lanna calendar and is a time for tham bun, which means “to make merit”. The most elaborate displays can be seen in the ancient capital of the former Lanna kingdom known as Chiang Mai. During this time, a multitude of Khom loi are released into the sky, where they resemble large flocks of giant fluorescent jellyfish that awe the throngs who gather to see them.

Due to the difference between the old Lanna calendar and the central Thai calendar, the Yi Peng festival coincides with one of Thailand’s most important national festivals, called Loi Krathong, which is held on the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. These days, Khom loi lanterns have become so popular with the Thai public that they are uses in most festivals, much like the Chinese. In addition, the people will decorate their houses, gardens and temples with hanging lanterns called Khom fai, which are intricately shaped to provide a wide variety of colourful decorations.

Rest of the World

Sky lanterns have increasingly grown in popularity beyond Asia – they are now a fairly frequent sight in the West on special occasions such as at weddings, New Years Eve and Halloween.


Sky lanterns have unfortunately gained a bad reputation amongst some people due to the dangers they potentially pose when they fall to the ground – farmers in many countries have particularly been opposed to them since at times they have caused crop fires and the death of livestock who consume them.

While the slim danger of causing a fire is always a risk with sky lanterns when they touch the ground before their flame has expired, since 2010 lanterns have been developed to become completely wire-free so that they no longer harm animals when ingested. Instead of metal, flame resistant wool is now used. This has made them much more ecologically friendly.


Whether they float in the air or simply shed appealing illumination as a home decoration, Chinese lanterns never cease to delight people across the world with their cheerful beauty.


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