The Chinese lantern festival has a history that dates back 2,000 years. Illuminated orbs celebrate a season of renewal, peace, and reflection. And, in those 2,000 or so years (since the Han Dynasty, some say) the tradition has expanded its reach, touching down in Charleston this month.
Together with Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, the Zigong Lantern Group brings Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange to Charleston, Nov. 15-March 15. Joy Lin, the international project supervisor, notes that in the past 20 years Zigong Lantern Group has created lantern exhibits in 200 cities in 50 countries. This is their first project in South Carolina.
Magnolia Gardens are the oldest gardens in the country; for Meng Liu, director of the company’s overseas operations, and Justin Corsa, chief executive officer, hosting a lantern exhibit at Magnolia was a no-brainer. “We do believe that these are the most beautiful gardens in the U.S.,” says Liu.
The gardens date back to 1685, when the Drayton family estbalished Flowerdale, the historic garden core of the site. Magnolia prides itself on how well it integrates with natural elements, featuring an eclectic collection of gardens rather than a more formal and landscaped garden. It is this natural, vibrant backdrop that serves as the colorful slate for the even more colorful creations of Zigong Lantern Group.
When we visited Magnolia in October, the exhibit was still being constructed, with tigers and zebras wrapped tight in protective paper while the main showcase — a 196-foot dragon — went through finishing touches. The Charleston show has been over a year-and-a-half in the making, from initial talks to design to production of the lanterns and sculptures in China. Then, of course, there were the logistics: visas for over 20 workers, a generator to power the lights, eleven 40-foot shipping containers to transport the sculptures to our port.
Tom Johnson, Magnolia’s executive director, says that he didn’t understand the true scale of the project until he sat down to figure out how to get the 20,000 LED bulbs (not including the twinkle lights strung throughout the gardens) to, well, work. He compares it to the power required to run a small neighborhood. “A fun fact,” he says with a smirk, “The generator power will cost us $25,000 a month. When I’m looking at the needs to light all of this up, that’s when the reality of how big and important this is set in.”
You can talk big numbers all day, but it’s hard to realize the scale of a 196-foot dragon until you stand below it, looking up at its gaping mouth. The dragon has its own team of six people, led by artisan Hong Jun Deng. Through an interpreter Deng says this dragon “is really the biggest dragon I have ever made.” It’s created with four tons of steel, 100,000 yards of thread, and 26,600 pieces of chinaware. Lin likes to say that if the dragon were to shed its scale (those pieces of chinaware), it could host a meal of 8,000 people at the same time, each served three courses.
A dragon is impressive, but it’s not necessarily native to the Lowcountry. That’s fine, says Liu, who notes that Zigong will create any creature a site desires: “Whatever you want or like, just tell us and we can make it for you.” The Magnolia exhibit will feature an alligator, a first for the group. Lin adds, “We not only design lanterns about Chinese culture, we represent local culture and the local people.”
Part of representing the local culture was considering how the lanterns would fit into Magnolia in a natural way. Liu and Corsa did a couple site visits, bringing Zigong’s general manager Zhongwen Li to check out Magnolia, too. Together they created a design to fit the gardens. Walking around on an overcast fall day you can sense how special this exhibit will be — of course, the best part comes once the sun goes down.
“At night, it’s a completely different experience,” says Corsa. Liu agrees: “Before we could only see this in China, but now we can see it here. I’ve seen some people cry. They saw the lanterns, bigger than life, and it’s like a childhood dream come true.”