Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 9, May 21 - 27

High Flyin’ Ayi  

Hey Ayi,

Why do people in Beijing get such a kick out of flying kites off of highway overpasses? Please enlighten me on the Chinese tradition of kite-flying.



Dear Updraft,

Although Marco Polo purportedly saw kites in China, they were not made or flown in Europe until the 18th century. Traditional lore says that the kite was invented by the ancient master craftsman Lu Ban in the 4th century BC. So great was the old inventor’s kite-making skill that he was able to make a man-carrying kite - the world’s first hang glider: The classical text Records of the Court and People (guanchang xianxing ji) tells the story of Lu Ban leaving his home near the southern city of Suzhou to go to Liangzhou Prefecture to build a pagoda. Lu Ban used the left-over materials from the pagoda to make a ‘wooden eagle’ to fly home to his wife. This story may be as apocryphal as a VCD vendor’s promises, but numerous references to kites in the literature of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) indicate that our ancestors were already using kites fashioned from bamboo and wood at that early date.

We Chinese invented gunpowder and used it to make firecrackers rather than bombs. Kites, however, were first used for military purposes before being adopted as toys. Chinese soldiers used colorful kites painted with ominous designs to confuse and frighten their enemies, and also to keep lines of communication open from far-flung battlefields.

In the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), improved designs and the use of new materials made it possible for ordinary people to make and fly their own kites. Colored paper, silk, and cloth were mounted on bamboo frames to make simple kites, but more extravagant designs appeared too: a Tang Dynasty craze involved mounting strings of lanterns on the body and tail of the kites. Lantern kites were frequently banned because they caused fires when they crashed. Less hazardous kite accessories included whistles and pipes that made music in the wind.

Cao Xueqin, author of the classic novel Dream of Red Mansions was a kite enthusiast and reputed to have written the book Research into the Art of Southern Hawks and Northern Kites. Written in verse, the book described the soft-wing kites of southern China and was responsible for spreading new kite-making techniques all over the country. The Dream of Red Mansions itself contains numerous references to kite flying, including a passage in which the young nobleman Jia Baoyu, surrounded by kite-flying maidens, fails to get his kite airborne and loses his temper.

Three famous schools of kite making appeared during the Qing Dynasty. The three schools were named after the families which invented the designs. ‘Ha’ kites (Feng Zheng Ha) were first made in Beijing by Ha Guoliang. His son Ha Changying exhibited his kites in New York in 1903 and won a silver medal in the San Francisco Fair in 1915. Ha Kuiming, grandson of the old master, opened ‘Ha’s Kite Shop’ in Beijing in the 1940s.

‘Wei’ kites (Feng Zheng Wei) were first designed by Wei Yuantai in Tianjin. His designs incorporated many features of Chinese folk art and also won him a gold medal at the International Panama Fair in 1914.

The Weifang (Wei Fang) kite school originated in Weifang in Shandong Province, a town famous for high quality craftsmanshipÑan old saying claims that the place has ‘200 red stoves, 3000 coppersmiths, 9000 embroiderers and 20,000 weavers.’ In Qing Dynasty-era Weifang, there were two great kite masters named Chen Yaba and Wang Fuzhai. Their kites were well-known in Shandong for their fine design and subtle coloring. The tradition of kite-making is still alive and well in Weifang. The town has whimsically chosen April 1 as the day for its annual kite festival where you can see tens of thousands of kites flying in the azure spring sky.

In Beijing, Tiananmen Square and Ritan Park are two good places to fly kites, although you will have to wait until October if you want to fly kites (or do anything else) in Tiananmen Square this anniversary year. Other popular kite-flying venues are from highway flyovers and almost anywhere with enough space to get a kite airborne.

Skilled kite-flyers also take part in kite-fighting competitions. The last part of the string (nearest the kite) is coated in glue and covered with powdered glass, making the string stiff and sharp. Kite-fighters attempt to sever their opponents string by whacking their kite’s string rapidly against their opponent’s. Still, most people fly kites in order to relax, and that is what you should do dear Updraft. The kite flying season is often reckoned to start after Qingming Festival which falls on April 5, but Beijing is windy enough to make kite-flying a year-round hobby.


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