Shatoujiao Fish Lanterns

Traditional craftsmanship in action.

Found in the sub-district of Shatoujiao in Shenzhen, the Shatoujiao Fish Lantern Dance is a folk dance created by the people of Lanxia village. Originating from the early Qing Dynasty, the villagers performed it to worship their Gods, and to pray for a bountiful harvest. Over the course of three hundred years, the Shatoujiao Fish Lantern dance has become a defining aspect of the region’s Lunar New Year celebrations.

The dance is traditionally performed at nighttime on public squares, and consists of twenty-some men holding fish lanterns above their head. During the dance, the performers leap and sway, flicking and fluttering the lanterns to give them fish-like movements. Around them are dragon-carved pillars and ocean-blue cloth arranged to resemble the seabed. The show does not use light, and spectators rely on candles inside the lanterns to see the brilliant array of fish. During the performance, dancers are guided by musicians playing gongs, drums, cymbals, suona, bass, and conch shells. The fish will move to the beat of these traditional instruments. Among them is the long mini drum, a cowhide drum in the shape of a helmet that measures 40 centimeters in height, and 20 centimeters in diameter.

Equally intricate are the lanterns themselves, and the immense craftsmanship that goes into their construction Bamboo sticks are bent and tied to form the skeleton of the fish. The wooden frame is then paper-machéed, and sealed off with a layer each of flour and leather paste. Bright traditional patterns are painted onto the lantern, and it is finished off with a coat of wood-oil varnish. A thin wooden rod is attached to the base of the lantern. Alas, the fish is ready to dance.

Before their first use, each fish lantern must be brought to the Wu clan’s ancestral shrine to be ‘illuminated’. Its first performance is before the Tianhou Temple on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, the day of the Lantern Festival.

The Shatoujiao Fish Lantern Dance is distinct from China’s other traditional dances; a true Canton specialty. Indeed, when Shatoujiao was split in two by British colonial pursuits during the 19th century, the Fish Lantern dance remained a shared tradition, thus strengthening the cultural bond between the two sides. The tradition has long origins, and will remain of great value to the studies of maritime culture, art, traditional folklore, and worship for years to come.

This piece is a translated work, translated from Chinese to English as part of the Shenzhen Nonmaterial Heritage Project of Shenzhen Polytechnic University and Shenzhen Museum.

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