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The Giant Lanterns of China highlight the bond between two cultures

The Qilin.
The Qilin.

The Giant Lanterns of China is the most ambitious exhibition ever hosted by Edinburgh Zoo. As the Chinese Spring Festival approaches, Caroline Lindsay shines a light on the event’s cultural significance.

If you go down to Edinburgh Zoo tonight you’re in for a magical surprise. A huge Chinese dragon lantern sculpture majestically watches over the zoo, while a myriad of other animal-themed lanterns transform its winding slopes and paths.

The Giant Lanterns of China is a fairy tale trail of more than 450 dazzling illuminations, including 211 large scale animal-themed lanterns. Painstakingly constructed from steel and silk, these range from 30 giant pandas, 12 lions and 30 native birds to 15 snails, 20 penguins and 25 flamingos. Each one is set alongside detailed backdrops of flowers, fauna, insects and Chinese heritage symbols like signs of the zodiac and traditional archways.

The trail explores three themes: China, Edinburgh Zoo, and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s (RZSS) worldwide animal conservation work.

The partnership to create the lanterns stems from a long standing relationship between RZSS and Sichuan, the birthplace of Edinburgh Zoo’s famous giant pandas, Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine).

Barbara Smith, CEO at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, is proud that the zoo is the only place in Scotland to host the installation. “We have very strong ties with China and Chinese culture thanks to our famous giant pandas,” she says. “As the only place in Scotland to see these lanterns, The Giant Lanterns of China will encourage local supporters and visitors from around the world to view our animals and conservation work in a new light.”

Jo Paulson.

But hosting such a high profile event is not without its challenges, as the zoo’s events manager Jo Paulson explains.

“It’s a totally unique exhibition and the biggest we’ve ever had. I think it’s safe to say it’s definitely the the most ambitious,” she smiles.

The exhibition, which has been in the planning for more than a year, launched in December and runs until the Chinese Spring Festival on February 25, meaning it’s had to contend with the worst that winter can throw at it.

“We’ve had to battle against the elements and the light conditions,” says Jo. “And although a lot of the smaller lanterns, less than two metres, were already made when they arrived, many of the bigger ones had to be constructed on site in a specially-built compound.

“Work took place while the zoo was open as normal so we had to make sure it was safe and blocked off, plus vehicular access on the zoo’s narrow sloping roads was another hurdle we had to work round.”

The exhibition’s two stand-out pieces – the 12m high Temple of Heaven and the 35m x 6m dragon were especially tricky to erect. But all the hard work was forgotten when the team saw the lanterns illuminated en masse – each lantern lights up individually with an LED light string, attached to various distribution boxes around the zoo.

Jo finds it impossible to choose a favourite lantern. “My favourites change every day because I see new things in different lanterns,” she smiles. “I actually prefer seeing them in the daylight than at night because you can see all the individual brushstrokes on the silk.

“But I love the armadillos – they show amazing levels of artistry and  help to highlight our conservation projects. Mind you, it was a challenge communicating why we wanted lanterns of dull-coloured animals like armadillos and beavers to the artistic director of a company that specialises in the biggest, brightest lanterns in their homeland! But they made a fantastic job and introduced beautiful bright backdrops for the animals.”

With 50,000 tickets sold since its opening and with a fortnight still to go, the public’s response to the exhibition has been overwhelming, earning it five stars on TripAdvisor. “People of all ages are wowed by it,” smiles Jo. “It’s difficult to put across in marketing terms the sheer scale and I just love seeing people’s reactions when they actually see it!”

Dequan Liao, one of the electricians with the ZiGong Lantern Group working on the exhibition, explains the teamwork involved in creating a lantern with the wow factor.

Dequan Liao.

“First, we lay a template on the ground and then the welders carry out the required welding, working from drawings,” he says. “Next, different coloured bulbs are installed in the frame according to the colour requirements. After that, the silk will be pasted up to the frame according to the artist’s instructions. Finally the artist adds colours and details.

“The whole process is complicated so we require the whole team to work together to make the lanterns perfect,” he continues.

The time involved in creating a lantern from scratch depends on its size. “A panda, for example, took four of our team 30 hours to make,” says Diquan, “whereas the huge dragon took 15 of us 3,000 combined hours.”

The rich history of the Chinese lantern stretches back more than 2,000 years. Today, says Diquan, every family will hang red lanterns – which symbolise a happy life – in front of their front door during the Spring Festival and to celebrate the start of the Year of the Dog.

Diquan selects two of the lanterns that he hopes will particularly teach visitors to the zoo about Chinese culture.

The Qilin.

“The Qilin – a mythical hooved chimerical creature – is a lucky animal in ancient Chinese legends and the symbol of luck and happiness. It is a metaphor we use when we’re talking about an outstanding person,” he explains.

“It’s a complex lantern made by tying up 120,000 small glass bottles using environmentally friendly materials.

“The Dragon, of course, is the symbol of China and of fearlessness for forging ahead,” he continues. “It’s been the tradition for a thousand years for Chinese people to have a lion dance and a pretend dragon to herald lasting prosperity and peace around the world.”

Once the lanterns and all their associated equipment had been shipped to Scotland by sea, it was the turn of the craftsmen to journey to Edinburgh to install the exhibition. Although Diquan has been to England before, it was his first time in Scotland – and definitely not his last. “I like it here. It’s beautiful and people are very friendly,” he smiles.

As well as exploring the epic works of lantern art, visitors also get a taste of Chinese culture with performances, food and craft stalls.

One person who is keen to promote the bond between Scotland and China is internationally renowned Kilted Yogi Finlay Wilson from Dundee. Pictured among the lanterns during the recent snowy spell, he enthuses: “I wanted to be involved to represent the ties between Scotland and China and to raise awareness for Edinburgh and its charity organisations.

“The lanterns are so intricate and colourful and with our dark winter nights, they really add another element to the zoo.”

While all good things must come to an end, the lanterns will go on to have a new lease of life. Once the exhibition ends on February 25, they will be recycled and repurposed for a variety of uses. But if you haven’t already been to The Giant Lanterns of China, don’t delay – it’s sure to brighten up winter.


The Giant Lanterns of China is in partnership with the VYA Creative Lantern Company Ltd and DDM Entertainment and Events Inc.

The exhibition runs until February 25. Tickets are priced from £17.50 per adult and £9.50 per child (under threes free; booking fee applies), available at

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland was founded by visionary lawyer Thomas Gillespie in 1909 ‘to promote, facilitate and encourage the study of zoology and kindred subjects and to foster and develop amongst the people an interest in and knowledge of animal life’. The Society still exists to connect people with nature and safeguard species from extinction.


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