Subtle Light of Lanterns Outshine Neon

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Subtle Light of Lanterns Outshine Neon

An endless stream of neon lights flicker in the night sky, as backlit artificial signboards stand like an army of loudly costumed sentinels in front of every eatery in the city. This is not the place for traditional paper lanterns - they would seem as incongruous as a bed of chrysanthemums in the heart of the concrete jungle. The lanterns would be overwhelmed by their blazing artificial cousins, their beauty and elegance diminished by the glaring floodlights of progress.

Traditional Korean lantern, or dung, used to be the only streetlights in Korean cities. And while one can see decorative lanterns hung in restaurants from time to time, it is only in April, during Buddha's birthday, that they again line city streets and float up mountainsides toward glowing temples.

The history of the lanterns in Korea dates back to the early 5th century of the Shilla Kingdom, when the country held Buddhist ceremonies, such as the Palwanje festival. The use of the the lanterns during religious ceremonies was inspired from a Buddhist teaching, which held that the lanterns can purify a person's mind. The Palwanje festival and the custom of lighting the lanterns continued until the the end of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910). Not even the antagonistic policies toward Buddhism during the Chosun Dynasty stopped common folk from continuing this deeply-rooted tradition.

The Grand Inter-Continental Seoul hotel is holding a traditional lantern exhibition on the first floor, in the space between the Grand Cafe and Hunter's Tavern. The fragility and beauty of the lanterns and the master craftsmanship that went into making them, is well represented at this exhibit, and has been kept alive by the Traditional Lantern Research Society (, Korea's only organization dedicated to the preservation of traditional lanterns.

The display includes a variety of different types of paper lamps, such as jong dung (bell lantern), buk dung (drum lantern) and juma dung ("running horse" lantern), which is is a type of revolving lantern.

Lanterns designed to commemorate and seasonal Christmas lanterns will also be on display. The lamp designs are drawn from Korean folk objects and the imaginary figures taken from pan-Asian fables. Common examples are Haitai, a Korean mythical guardian tiger. There is a lantern featuring a ferocious half-horse, half-human Chinese warrior stomping on clouds, another with an illustration of an Indian elephant idol placed on a pedestal and a scarlet carp writhing above lotus petals, inspired from Chinese, Japanese and Korean fables. Impressive as they are, these hand-painted lanterns with their mythical figures only come alive when they are set alight and night descends.

The exhibition will be open through Sunday. For more information call 02-559-7752.

by Ines Cho

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