Chinese Kites: A Rich Tradition
Double Swallow; silk and bamboo; 28 3/4" x 37".
The long and noble tradition of Chinese kite making spans more than two millennia. Ancient legends tell of wooden kites being made to carry a warrior through the sky. Kites have also been used for message delivery, reconnaissance, surveying, and even for warding off bad luck or ensuring good health. Because they have often incorporated sound-making devices such as whistles or drums, the Chinese word for kite, fengzheng, comes from the zheng, a stringed instrument.
Traditional Chinese kites feature rigid or flexible bamboo frames and are covered with either silk or paper. They are designed in a variety of two- or three-dimensional shapes. Their colorful decorations are often preprinted but may also be custom painted. Common themes include natural objects, such as birds and flowers; mythical or auspicious symbols, such as the phoenix; calligraphic lettering with words of inspiration; and human figures in colorful costumes. Today, artistic kites are found in the permanent collections of many museums worldwide.
Head of a Dragon; silk, bamboo, and other materials.
The full kite is about 40 feet long.
Of the many styles of Chinese kites, perhaps the most dramatic is the dragon-headed centipede. It is composed of a three-dimensional representation of a dragon’s head followed by a series of silk disks tethered to each other by lengths of string. Some centipede kites are more than 40 feet long and require five or more handlers who, located at 10-foot intervals, control the strings and release the hundreds of disks in sequence.
Other kites depict flocks of flying geese in V formation. These kites sail from a bridle located at the point of the V. Additional types include three-dimensional cylindrical lanterns or barrels arranged singly or in pairs, and aerodynamic two-dimensional kites shaped like birds, dragonflies, or bees. The wingspans of kites can range from palm-sized (under 3 inches) to more than 20 feet in breadth.
Delicately painted and ingeniously shaped, Chinese kites visually unfold a compelling story of cultural richness, tradition, and variety.
Cicada; silk and bamboo; 17" x 41".
Many web sources provide background on the history of kite making, as well as insights into the cultural uses of kites. Here are six of them:
-Chinahighlights.com/travelguide/kite.htm contains a good basic article about the
history of kites
-firstname.lastname@example.org is an excellent
article about the city of Weifang, China, famous for its kite making, and includes images of some amazing kites.
-www.clippershipdistribution.com/shop sells Chinese kites, books, and music.
-www.goodorient.com sells many Asian items, including kites, which are found by typing “kites” in the search box.
-www.kiteman.co.uk/KiteHistoryBothPages.html provides a wealth of information by British kite enthusiast Malcolm Goodman.
-www.aka.kite.org/, the home of the American Kitefliers Association, maintains a calendar of kite festivals, a kite talk forum, information about National Kite Month (April), and useful links.
Chinese Artistic Kites (1990, Commercial Press, Hong Kong) is an excellent illustrated book, coauthored by a father and son of the centuries-long Ha family of kite makers in Beijing. (Used copies can be found through amazon.com.)
The Summer 2006 issue of Hand Papermaking, the quarterly magazine of the organization of the same name, was devoted to the theme of Paper in Flight, with articles on handmade kites and balloons. The organization, celebrating its twentieth anniversary, commissioned a kite by Lesley Dill.
About the Photos
The kites shown were included in the 2005 exhibition The Rising Phoenix and Soaring Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Kites at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts. Photos courtesy of Springfield Museums.
The museum provided the following information about kite construction:
Most Chinese kites are made by stretching paper or silk over bamboo frames. The bamboo is harvested in autumn and dried slowly so that the finished product does not warp. Only the midsection of the bamboo, the strongest part of the stem, is used. The different parts of the frame are joined together by tenons, mortises, rings, plugs, and/or sockets. Then paper or silk is cut to shape; it may be painted before it is applied to the frame or decorated once it is pasted onto the skeleton structure. In order to ensure flight consistency, the skin of the kite is applied as smoothly as possible. For larger kites, an extra layer of paper may be pasted onto the back of the silk to strengthen the structure.
About the Author
Maureen Egan is a professor of philosophy and fiber artist who lives in Westfield, Massachusetts.