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Kites in Chinese Culture



Kite-making is a Chinese folk handicraft. Historical records show that the first kite was made in the Spring and Autumn Period. But it was not a pleasure kite. The first kite was a wooden kite made for military purposes. Paper kites appeared later.

Kite is called fengzheng in Chinese because in the tenth century, a person named Li Ye fastened a bamboo whistle to a kite. Flying high overhead, the whistle sounded like the zheng, a Chinese musical instrument. Therefore, kites became known as fengzheng, feng meaning wind; hence the name.

Tianjin is best known for its production of kites. Its most famous craftsman was "Wei Yuantai", known as "Kite Wei", because he was a kite-maker for more than 70 years.

The first kite made in China was a butterfly or eagle kite with a rigid framework. The selection was limited and the craftsmanship was clumsy. But Kite Wei developed over 200 kites with many new structural designs, such as flat hard-winged, three-dimensional, soft-winged and folding. Folding kites have a flexible tenon bamboo frame-work secured with glue instead of thread, and reinforced by a copper ring at every joint. Kites one to three metres long, in the forms of aeroplanes, birds, animals or human figures, can be folded up and packed in a 30 cm box in a large envelope for easy carrying or mailing. In 1915, "Wei Yuantai" kites won a gold medal and a certificate of merit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, USA. Kites made by the Wei family feature life-like forms, fine craftsmanship and well-balanced flight. Some of the Wei's creations include kites in the forms of butterflies, eagles, swallows, peacocks, phoenixes and cranes. More than fifty varieties of kites made by the Wei's have been exhibited in China and abroad. Later generations have upheld the heritage of Wei Yuantai. Today, Wei Yongchang, the third generation of the Wei's, is a design-technician at the Tianjin Arts and Crafts Studio. He has developed more than 50 new designs using the old Wei technique.

Beijing is famous for kite-making, too. Its kites are made of paper or silk. All the designs on kites are painted by hand. Beijing kites are also available in great varieties such as kites in the forms of a dragon, a butterfly, or a character in Chinese classical works (like the "Monkey King"). There is a veteran craftsman named Fei Baolin in Beijing Kite Art Company. Fei has made several hundred kinds of kites in different shapes and sizes. The smallest is as small as the palm of your hand.

In April of each year, the Weifang International Kite Festival is held in Shandong Province. Kite lovers from all over the world come to Weifang with their specially made kites to compete and take part in the festivities.

Revised June 2, 2011