The kite, a Chinese invention, has been praised as the forerunner of the modern aeroplane. In the pavilion of aircraft of the National Aeronautics and Space Museum, Washington D. C., a plaque says, “the earliest aircraft are the kites and missiles of China”.
The kite is mainly, but not only, a plaything. It has contributed to science and production. The first planes were shaped after the kite. In 1782, Benjamin Franklin, noted American scientist and statesman, studied lightning and thunder in the sky with the help of a kite and then invented the lightning rod. Kites are still used by some fishermen to lay bait in the sea to attract fish, or by photographers to take pictures of bird’s-eye view from high altitude.
The earliest Chinese kites were made of wood and called muyuan (wooden kites); they date as far back as the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) at least two millennia ago. After the invention of paper, kites began to be made of this new material called zhiyuan (paper kites).
Instead of being playthings, early kites were used for military purposes. Historical records say they were large in size; some were powerful enough to carry men up in the air to observe enemy movements, and others were used to scatter propaganda leaflets over hostile forces. According to the Records of Strange Events (Du Yi Zhi), an ancient work, when Xiao Yan, Emperor Wudi (464-549) of the Liang Dynasty, was surrounded at Taicheng, Nanjing by the rebel troops under Hou Jing, it was by means of a kite that he sent out an S.O.S. message for outside help.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), people began to fix on kites some bamboo strips which, when high in the air, would vibrate and ring in the breeze like a zheng (a stringed instrument). Since then, the popular Chinese name for the kite has become fengzheng (wind zheng). The kites made today in certain localities are fixed with silk strings or rubber bands to give out pleasant ringing in the wind.
It was also believed, for instance, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), that flying a kite and then letting it go, apart from the pleasure in itself, might send off one’s bad luck and illness. Consequently it would bring bad luck if one should pick up a kite lost by other people. This may be dismissed as superstition but may not be altogether without reason: think of the good it will do to a person, ill and depressed all the time, if he or she could go out into the fields and fresh air to fly a kite.
Certain enthusiasts enjoy flying kites during the night. They hang small coloured lanterns on the line with candles burning inside, which go up high in the air to decorate the night sky with strings of glimmering lights, adding much to the fun.
Chinese kites fall into two major categories: those with detachable wings and those with fixed wings. The former can be taken apart and packed in boxes. Easy to carry about, they make good presents. The second category refers to those with fixed, non-detachable frames; they fly better and higher , given a steady wind. Classified by designs and other specifications, there are no less than 300 varieties, including human figures, fish, insects, birds, animals and written characters. In size, they range from 304 metres to only 30 centimetres across.
It is no easy job to make a kite that one can be proud of. For the frame, the right kind of bamboo must be selected. It should be thick and strong for a kite of large dimensions in order to stand the wind pressure. For miniature kites, on the other hand , thin bamboo strips are to be used.
The second step in the making of a kite is the covering of the frame. This is normally done with paper, sometimes with silk. Silk kites are more durable and generally of higher artistic value.
Painting of the kite (the third step) may be done in either of two ways. For mass-produced kites, pre-printed paper is used to cover the frames. Custom-made kites are painted manually after covering. Many of the designs bear messages of good luck; a pine tree and a crane, for example, mean longevity, bats and peaches wish you good fortune and a long life, and so on.
In 1983 a large-scale kite-flying competition was held in Tianjin. A “dragon-headed centipede” of a hundred sections, with a total length of a hundred metres, flown up by a squad of 5 or 6 young men of the Tianjin Fine Arts Factory, thrashed and danced about in the air. A Japanese enthusiast sent up a 300-metre-long kite of a string of 270 sections. These and other successes attracted large crowds and won thunderous applause.
The well-known Weifang (Shandong Province) Kite Festival has become an annual feature in the country, drawing hundreds of participants each April from home and many foreign countries to enjoy the festivities and authentic Chinese food recipes.
As early as two dozen years ago, a film entitled The Kite was jointly made by Chinese and French studios, which sings of Sino-French friendship through the “adventures” of a kite.