The Rolling Lanterns of Ma Xiao:Gun Deng

The Rolling Lanterns of Ma Xiao:Gun Deng

The rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao, a unique art form originating in Lin'an County, are not only a warm expression of the local residents' welcome for the Empress Dowager but also a display of their deep cultural heritage and exquisite craftsmanship. The lanterns are ingeniously crafted, primarily using pine wood and bamboo to create a disc shape. The design is remarkable for its stable structure and deeply meaningful artistic form.


At the center of the disc is a cleverly installed long stick that acts as an axis, supporting the entire lantern and allowing it to rotate freely. The outer rim of the disc is intricately sewn and wrapped with cloth painted with various beautiful patterns. These colorful and detailed designs not only enhance the artistic appeal of the lanterns but also hold profound cultural significance. When night falls and the lanterns are lit, they shine brightly in the night, like dazzling pearls illuminating the night sky of Lin'an and warming the hearts of the audience. The rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao are not only a cultural treasure of Lin'an County but also a vivid embodiment of traditional Chinese culture.


 Origin and History


The rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao have a long history, originating in the mid-Ming Dynasty and enduring for over 600 years. They are more than just a unique cultural expression; they carry deep historical significance and the emotional memories of the people.


According to the precious records in the "Lin'an County Annals," the creation of the Ma Xiao rolling lanterns is closely tied to an extraordinary woman—the Empress Dowager Xiaohui. Known affectionately by the locals as Lady Shao, she was originally a simple villager from Shaojia Village in Qingliangfeng Town, Lin'an City (now renamed Yangxi Village). In the fourth year of the Tianshun period (1460), she was selected for the palace due to her outstanding virtue and beauty, beginning an extraordinary journey.


In the palace, Lady Shao won the respect and affection of many with her gentle demeanor and intelligence. She later became a concubine of Emperor Chenghua and bore him a son (the fourth son of the emperor), thus being promoted to the rank of imperial concubine. Remarkably, when her grandson Zhu Houcong ascended the throne, she was honored as the "Empress Dowager," becoming a revered figure in the court.


Despite her royal status, Lady Shao never forgot her roots, her hometown, and the people there. Every year during the Year of the Dragon, she would return to her hometown with precious gifts from the palace, celebrating the festivals with her family and fellow villagers.


For the people of Lin'an, this grand homecoming was a rare event. To express their deep respect and enthusiastic welcome, they prepared various celebratory activities, among which the dazzling rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao were the most distinctive.


The villagers ingeniously crafted the rolling lanterns using pine wood and bamboo to form disc shapes, with a long stick installed at the center to allow flexible rotation. The outer rim of the disc was wrapped with cloth painted with various beautiful patterns. These colorful and vivid designs not only added artistic beauty to the lanterns but also held rich cultural connotations. When night fell and the lanterns were lit, they shone brightly in the night sky, illuminating the entire county.


On the Huizhou-Hangzhou Ancient Road, villagers lined the streets with rolling lanterns to welcome Lady Shao's return. The magnificent scene, the lively atmosphere, and the heartfelt blessings deeply moved Lady Shao and her entourage. This traditional custom not only showcased the simplicity and enthusiasm of the Lin'an people but also demonstrated their profound respect and gratitude for Lady Shao.


 Style and Characteristics


The rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao are celebrated for their exquisite craftsmanship and rich cultural connotations, making them a beloved art form. They are not merely a form of performance art but also a manifestation of cultural heritage and expression.


The creation of these lanterns involves the meticulous crafting of disc-shaped structures from pine wood and bamboo. These materials are chosen for their durability and natural appeal. The central axis, a long stick, supports the lantern and allows it to rotate freely during performances.


The outer rim of the disc is adorned with cloth featuring various beautiful patterns. These vibrant and intricate designs, such as the twelve zodiac signs, bountiful harvests, and the Eight Immortals, symbolize good fortune, prosperity, and divine protection. This enhances the artistic beauty of the lanterns and imbues them with deep cultural significance.


The performance of the rolling lanterns is captivating, drawing the attention of countless spectators. There are various specifications for the lanterns, such as those with 12 or 16 lamps, each with unique characteristics. For example, a performance with 12 lamps includes lanterns of varying heights, from 2.2 meters to 1.2 meters, creating a visually rich and layered effect.


The opening ceremony is grand and enthusiastic, with large gongs heralding the start, adding to the lively atmosphere. The inclusion of props like two firecrackers, four fire meteors, and various flags and banners further enhances the performance. The coordination of these props with the lanterns creates spectacular scenes.


The rolling lanterns' performance is diverse and dynamic, featuring routines such as double dragons emerging from the water, dragons playing with water, figure-eight formations, and entangled iron chains, captivating the audience. Performers, dressed in vibrant costumes, gracefully dance with the lanterns to the accompaniment of music. Their coordinated and powerful movements fully showcase the charm of the lanterns, earning enthusiastic applause and cheers from the audience.


The rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao are not only a unique performance art but also a cultural treasure of Lin'an. They embody deep historical heritage and emotional memories, representing the wisdom and creativity of the local people. Through these performances, we can feel the enthusiasm and vitality of the Lin'an people, as well as their love and preservation of traditional culture. This art form enriches people's cultural lives and leaves a valuable cultural legacy.




The rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao symbolize various aspects, including:


Cultural Heritage and Historical Witness:

- Originating in the mid-Ming Dynasty, with over 600 years of history, they witness the evolution and development of local culture, serving as a concrete representation of historical heritage.


Folk Customs:

- The materials and design styles, such as using pine wood and bamboo for the discs and wrapping the outer rim with painted cloth, reflect the ingenuity and aesthetic preferences of folk artists, showcasing the unique customs of the western Zhejiang region.


Auspicious Wishes and Hopes:

- Patterns like the twelve zodiac signs, bountiful harvests, and the Eight Immortals symbolize good fortune, abundance, and divine protection, expressing people's aspirations and wishes for a better life.


Unity and Cooperation:

- The performances often require coordination among many people, with various specifications of lanterns requiring synchronized movements, symbolizing the spirit of unity and collective strength.


Vitality and Innovation:

- The diverse and dynamic performance routines, such as double dragons emerging from the water and figure-eight formations, demonstrate the vitality and innovative spirit of folk art.


Protection and Inheritance of Intangible Cultural Heritage:

- Listed as a Zhejiang Province intangible cultural heritage in 2009, this recognition signifies the respect and protection of traditional culture and the importance of inheriting intangible cultural heritage.


Overall, the rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao are not only a visually appealing folk art performance but also a cultural carrier, bearing rich historical and cultural information and the people's beautiful aspirations.


Inheritance and Current Status


The rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao faced challenges during their history, particularly during the Cultural Revolution when they were interrupted and faced the risk of being lost. However, the resilience of culture is enduring. In 1983, with the active efforts of the local government and the selfless teachings of folk artists, the rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao were revived.


This revival not only brought the lanterns back into the public eye but also propelled their development to higher levels. Since their restoration, the rolling lanterns have frequently appeared on various important stages, captivating countless audiences with their unique artistic charm and rich cultural connotations.


In 1986, the rolling lanterns dazzled the audience during the Lantern Festival in Lin'an County with their exquisite performance skills and splendid visual effects. In 2002 and 2003, they shone at the Forest Expo and the West Lake Expo in Hangzhou, respectively, winning the Lantern Art Gold Award and the Outstanding Program Award. These honors reflect the dedication of folk artists to preserving and passing on traditional culture, as well as the strong support from the local government and cultural departments.


Over time, the influence of the rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao has grown. In 2009, they were finally listed as a Zhejiang Province intangible cultural heritage, becoming a legally protected traditional culture. This recognition not only affirms the artistic value of the rolling lanterns but also acknowledges their historical and cultural significance.


Today, the rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao have become a cultural emblem of Lin'an County and even Zhejiang Province. Their revival and inheritance not only enrich people's cultural lives but also leave us with a valuable cultural legacy. We look forward to seeing the rolling lanterns of Ma Xiao continue to shine on broader stages, carrying forward and promoting the excellent traditional culture of the Chinese nation.








  1. "500 Years Ago, Welcoming the Empress Dowager's Return, Ma Xiao's Rolling Lanterns Included in the Provincial Intangible Cultural Heritage." Hangzhou Daily. [Accessed March 15, 2015]
  2. "Ma Xiao's Rolling Lanterns." Zhejiang Province Intangible Cultural Heritage Network. [Accessed March 15, 2015]
  3. "Hangzhou's Intangible Cultural Heritage Mini-Class: Ma Xiao's Rolling Lanterns." Hangzhou Cultural and Creative Industry Development Center. [Accessed August 23, 2021]
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