"The flames flicker, the silk swells, and our vision rises ever higher. My friends, let these balloons carry our ambitions as high as they float, so that we may see beyond the present haze and glide toward the future."
—Zhuge Liang (Kongming)
Long before the Montgolfier brothers ever conceived of their pioneering hot air balloons in 18th century France—the precursor to that innovative technology was quietly drifting through the skies of ancient China.
As early as the 3rd century BC, Chinese innovators had discovered the fundamental principle of lighter-than-air flight and invented what could be considered the world's first hot air balloons.
Referred to as Kongming lanterns or Chinese lanterns, these simple yet revolutionary contraptions of silk, paper, and bamboo framed by fire would inspire ceremonial and recreational uses for centuries.
But their origins and the full extent of their military and civilian applications during the ancient period have been shrouded in the mists of time. Only through a deep investigation of the fragmented sources can a historian begin to uncover the forgotten story of ancient China's hot air balloons.
Their legacy constitutes an overlooked chapter in the annals of human invention and technology, one that bridges the centuries between ancient Asian and pre-modern European history.
The historic Chinese hot air balloon deserves renewed scrutiny and appreciation in the modern era.
The earliest evidence of hot air balloons emerged from China in the 3rd century BC during the Warring States period.
These primitive flying devices were known as Kongming lanterns, so named in honor of the military strategist Zhuge Liang, whose style name was Kongming. Also referred to as Chinese lanterns, these balloons consisted of a lightweight paper or silk envelope affixed to a bamboo frame.
Suspended below was a small candle or oil lamp, the heated air from which would fill the envelope and make it buoyant.
Though humble in construction, these balloons represented a monumental technological leap for their time.
To create lift through hot air was an innovation of tremendous ingenuity, vastly different from familiar modes of transportation by water or land.
The oldest known depiction of these balloons is found in a Warring States era painting, testifying to their existence by at least 475 BC.
Though their military value as suggested signaling devices is difficult to confirm, the Kongming lantern was unquestionably one of ancient China's most creative and unlikely inventions—the successful harnessing of an aerial principle that would not be replicated in the West for nearly two millennia.
The hot air balloons became known as Kongming lanterns in honor of famed 3rd century AD military strategist Zhuge Liang, whose style name was Kongming.
Zhuge Liang rose to prominence serving Liu Bei during the Three Kingdoms period following the collapse of the Han Dynasty.
According to legend, Zhuge Liang devised an ingenious new military application for the floating lanterns as signaling devices. By coordinating the launch and positioning of multiple lanterns from hilltops, he could transmit coded messages and instructions to troops across far distances.
This built upon the lanterns' established civilian uses for ceremonial events, now adapted for military intelligence and communication.
While historical evidence to corroborate this story remains scant, the colorful legend served to further popularize both Zhuge Liang and the lanterns bearing his name. His alleged clever re-purposing of their design helped inspire many generations of Chinese to view Kongming lanterns as symbols of wisdom and creativity.
The engineered brilliance of the Kongming lanterns lay in their simple yet carefully conceived design.
The balloon envelope that held the heated air was fashioned from China's readily available materials of either lightweight silk or paper, cut and glued to create a sleeve around the bamboo basket frame underneath.
This frame provided crucial structural integrity while remaining sufficiently lightweight.
Suspended below the frame was a small oil lamp or candle, protected from igniting the envelope and tethered with cords.
As the flame heated the air trapped within the envelope, the air expanded and became less dense than the cooler surrounding air. This created sufficient buoyancy for the entire lantern to rise skyward, floating through the air as long as the flame continued heating the interior.
The Chinese had mastered the physics of hot air flight and displacement, achieving a vessel capable of transporting fire and light high into the heavens through no more than silk, paper, bamboo and basic combustion.
For a civilization without access to modern metals, fabrics and lifting gasses, this was an immense feat of low-technology aeronautical engineering.
While the military applications of Kongming lanterns remain uncertain, historical records clearly show their primary usage was ceremonial and ritualistic.
Rather than transporting people, these balloons were created for symbolic and aesthetic purposes during festivals and rites. They served as decorative centerpieces, with their glowing flames dazzling spectators as they floated upwards into the night sky.
The mystical sight invoked a sense of magic and divine ascension, explaining their cultural appeal.
The earliest definitive evidence of hot air balloons comes from a Warring States era painting discovered in archaeological excavations of tombs from between 475 to 221 BC. In the artwork, servants prepare several Kongming lanterns for launch during a burial ceremony, confirming these balloons were established cultural artifacts by the 5th century BC at the latest.
Additional paintings and records verify the balloons' central role in China's mid-Autumn Moon Festival, where they were launched carrying tributes and offerings.
Though not intended for transporting people, ancient hot air balloons found meaningful application in Chinese ritual and imagination for centuries—as documented in the civilization's oldest surviving depictions.
By the Tang Dynasty between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, Chinese hot air balloons evolved beyond ceremonial and military functions into more recreational applications.
During this cosmopolitan era, the Kongming lanterns became ubiquitous sights at festivals and celebrations across the empire.
Colorful paper lanterns decorated with calligraphy and artwork were constructed for mass launchings at nighttime public gatherings.
Teams would release hundreds of balloons in unison, lighting up the sky to the delight of spectators. The floating lanterns took on a more entertaining and leisurely purpose, complementing music, dance and food at lively Tang-era festivals.
Lantern releases also occurred during the annual Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, as offerings symbolizing hopes and prayers.
For the Tang people, writing one's desires on a Kongming lantern and watching it drift toward the heavens embodied optimistic aspirations. With their whimsical presence and creative designs, hot air balloons greatly enhanced public festivities during China's cultural zenith.
What originated with pragmatic aims evolved into an endearing pastime under the Tang.
Although most Kongming lanterns were modestly sized, some records from imperial China tell of spectacularly large hot air balloons constructed.
According to the History of the Sui Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Yang of Sui in the early 7th century AD, a wondrous airborne contraption was built for an imperial ceremony.
The giant balloon measured over 30 feet tall and was ornately decorated with mythological creatures and celestial designs.
Its immense silk envelope was supported by a bamboo frame and basket able to carry over 200 pounds in weight when filled with heated air.
Teams of artisans and engineers worked to carefully construct the balloon's components and successfully launch it aloft with fires fueling its flight. The sheer volume of air that would have been heated to less than ambient temperatures, providing the lift for this colossal aircraft, is astonishing.
The record affirms that 7th century Chinese aerospace engineers had mastered the scaling up of hot air balloon technology to unprecedented dimensions.
No European counterpart to this massive Kongming lantern would exist until the 19th century AD, demonstrating ancient China's superiority in ballooning expertise.
For over 1,500 years, the ingenious hot air balloons of China remained largely unknown in the West.
Their existence faded from memory as new dynasties and ages passed. But French pioneers in the 1780s unwittingly replicated those same aeronautic breakthroughs first achieved by the ancient Chinese.
The Montgolfier brothers created the first modern hot air balloons through experiments with silk canopies over smoke fires that lifted them skyward.
Their balloons spawned an era of European ballooning enthusiasm and technological progress.
Yet the underlying principle of heated, less dense air had already been harnessed in China almost two millennia prior. Once the ancient Kongming lanterns became better known to modern historians—it became evident that they were the forgotten forerunners to 18th century European balloons.
The ancient Chinese possessed all the foundational knowledge that enabled the Montgolfiers' success, even without modern materials and gasses.
Their inspiration outlived them, re-emerging in the West centuries later once visionaries there pursued that same goal of lifting human flight. The legacy of China's early hot air balloons lived on far longer than history initially realized.
The time-honored tradition of Kongming lanterns has persisted into modern times, even as their design evolved with new materials.
Colorful paper and wire frames are still handmade in some Chinese communities to celebrate festivals. But concerns emerged about the fire danger of launching uncontrolled flaming lanterns, especially in urban environments.
Their decorative charm failed to outweigh potential property damage and safety hazards. Government restrictions were imposed in the 1990s and 2000s across parts of Asia, though enforcement remained inconsistent.
Most policies only permitted launching balloons made with non-flammable gasses and strict tethering.
However, more traditionalists continued using fire lanterns illegally, valuing cultural preservation over regulations. Debates surrounding banning lanterns heightened their politicization.
But pragmatic safety arguments won out overall, forcing modifications from unhindered flame to LED lights.
Yet ingenuity again modernized Kongming lanterns to meet both cultural and administrative needs. Their core appeal endures by adapting to changing societal conditions, much as they did when soaring over ancient Chinese landscapes centuries ago.