With the arrival of warmer weather and the breezes of late spring, outdoors in northern China is at its best. The wind clears the air, giving frequent clear blue skies and uninterrupted sun without the energy sapping heat of high summer. May is the best month of the year and people enjoy being outside in the city streets, squares and parks. In these open grounds its common to see brightly coloured kites fluttering high overhead. Relics of Chinas ancient culture flying high above the modern cities.
From early descriptions of kites its known that they were used in China at least 2 millennia ago. It is believed that the very first kite was made by Mo Di, a famous philosopher who lived on Mount Lu in Weifang, Shandong. His kite was made from wood in the shape of an eagle and took three years to complete. His student, Gongshu Ban improved on the design by using bamboo and silk.
It is believed that kite flying became a recreation activity during the Tang dynasty. In the beginning the hobby was restricted to the royal family and aristocrats because of the cost required to produce them. They were made to emulate the flight of birds, constructed from silks and brightly painted. The invention of paper made kites less costly and they then spread quickly among the common people.
When Mo Di built the first kite in the shape of an eagle he set a tradition among Chinese kite makers that continues today. While most kites flying now above the cities are modern designs, a cheap polythene sheet on a plastic frame many still have bird and animal patterns and decorated with bright colours.
Several cities became famous for their kite designers. Tianjin is famous for Wei Yuantai, who was born in Tianjin in 1872, and is probably the world’s best known kite maker. He made over 10,000 kites over 70 years and in 1915, Wei Yuantai kites won a gold medal and a certificate of merit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
Wei kites are still made by the Wei family, in Tianjin, at the north end of Gulou. The small shop, has a grand display of designs hanging on the walls, including some of the original kites made by Yuantai. Bowen Wei, who was working in the shop when I visited, is the 5th generation of kite
makers, still making and designing kites, using the same materials and methods as his ancestors. The shop, also a workshop, has thick bamboo stems and skeins of silk stacked in the corner and kites in various stages of build. You can see the delicate frames made from thin slivers of wood and admire the superb craftmanship. The light but strong scaffolding forms the body of a bird or insect and is skillfully constructed by bending and slotted strips of bamboo precisely together. So exacting is the fit that no gluing or tying is required. On the desk are sections of silk with colorful designs being hand painted. Above finished kites of fierce eagles and swallowtail butterflies hang.
Weifang is another famous city for kites. Situated about 400 kms southeast of Tianjin, it is where Marco Polo first encountered a kite as well as the city of origin. Like Tianjin it is located on the Bohai sea and the land is flat and low lying. It is just above sea level with no high buildings or trees to obstruct the breeze that blows off the sea – perfect for kite flying.
Weifang also hosts a kite festival each year and people from all over China and the world visit. I met Derek from the UK and Linares from Brazil in Weifang. They both make a living from designing and making kites. The festival is a chance to show off their designs and skills and maybe get more business, but they tell me, it’s mostly just to fly them.
The sky was already filled with kites when I arrived. As the day progressed and the kites got higher more layers were added underneath. Collisions and entangled strings are common.
I wasn’t sure what to expect coming here, I didn’t imagine the variety, the size, or how close they’d fly together. It was surprisingly exciting watching a team struggling to get a grinning superman, the size of a bus, off the ground. Watching people scramble to avoid the trailing strings as it sheared across the field, or the comedy as its face, fixed in a smile, stayed strangely unmoved, as it skidded into the earth again.
Kites are unremarkable on the ground. A heap of nylon, like cheap discarded shell suits. Limbs and tentacles drag, bodies bend and collapse ungainly as they lift, but a few feet into the air and they billow out, transforming into something of elegance.
The best, not just a static shape on the end of a string, but a fish, a bird, a dragon with all the grace and movement of its namesake. Under the skill of their designers they can be made to swoop, to turn and soar and the dragons shake and tremble. Flying a kite, seeing it climb into the sky, is the culmination of months of work. The validation of a dream in the designer’s head, turned into bits of material and string, the vision made flesh through it flight. Chatting with Lisares, I was soon caught up in his enthusiasm, pulling on a line and helping him launch a 12 foot seagull.
The giant inflatable shapes are the obvious crowd pleasers, but equally interesting are the long strings of small kites that climb almost vertically upwards. One group from Changqing had a line of 800 kites, stretching 1000 meters skyward. Another group of 5 young girls from Taiyuan have some stunt kites which they control to give a display of coordinated patterns.
I thought kites were for kids, but these toys are strictly for adults. Whether it’s the delicate frames of the ancient Wei kites taking weeks to build, the giant inflatables held rigid with two dozen ropes, or the practiced timings and synchronisation of a group of stunt kiters. It seems that the tradition of kite flying is as popular as ever. Started in China and spread around the world, it’s not just the pleasure derived from being outdoors, but also from the innovation and artistry that precedes it.