Chinese Kites: Flights of Fancy

June 7 – July 16, 1983

Few sights are more joyful than watching a kite dancing in the wind. As it swirls and swoops and soars through the sky, it takes on a life of its own “like a bird in flight-indeed, the Chinese word for kite, zhi yuan, means paper bird. But while the earliest kites may have resembled birds, we know that they were not made of paper-paper did not yet exist.
Kites are so ancient-invented before written history-that we can only speculate about their origin. Various classical texts ascribe the invention of a wooden kite to Mo Di (d. 380 B.C.) and Gong Shuban, the famous engineer of the State of Lu. Such wooden kites were used to lift men aloft to gather military intelligence. References claim that Gong Shuban constructed a kite that stayed airborne for three days. The philosopher Mo Tzu (479 – 381 B.C.), on the other hand, spent three years building a kite which was wrecked after one day’s flight.
Kites were often used for military purposes throughout Chinese history. A legend tells of a general at war with Emperor Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 200). Liu had bamboo zithers attached to kites and flown over the enemy army during the night. The eerie moans and wails produced by the instruments so frightened the general’s troops that they fled in terror. In the 13th century, a Jin army besieged by the Mongols sent up paper kites with messages on them. When the kites were over enemy lines, the strings were cut so they fell among the Jin prisoners. The messages urged them to revolt and escape.
Kite-flying became popular among the emperors and aristocrats as an amusement, and by the end of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), townspeople and peasants were flying them. New types of kites were developed and kitemaking became an important folk art. Kite fighting grew to be a favorite sport in China contestants coat the kite string with powdered glass and try to sever their opponent’s flying line.
But kites were more than toys; they played a role in rituals and customs. During the Festival of Ascending on High held in the ninth moon, children fly kites to their hearts’ content. At the end of the day, they let the kites go, sending evil, sickness, and misfortune away. Kites were also a colorful addition to folk celebrations.
In the United States, kite-flying is considered an activity for children, yet the kite figured importantly in two major scientific discoveries. In 1752 Benjamin Franklin used a kite in his famous experiment that proved lightning and electricity are the same thing. While developing the airplane, the Wright Brothers tested their gliders by flying them as kites.
To the Chinese, kite-flying is more than a passing amusement-It is a passion. This exhibition of traditional Chinese kites is designed to show the creative range of these imaginative and practical folk objects. The true test of any kite is its ability to catch the wind and sad above the earth, conveying the flyer away from daily cares. The best kites-the centipedes and swallows, the gods and fairies, the butterflies and dragons–appeal to our unbridled spirit and take us on a flight of fancy.
Our appreciation goes to the China Exhibition Agency for its help In collecting the contemporary kites and the American Museum of Natural History for the loan of the Qing Dynasty kites. The Qing Dynasty kites are part of a vast collection of artifacts gathered by Berhold Laufer, a German ethnologist, at the turn of the century. Laufer, commissioned by the American Museum of Natural History, collected over 20,000 objects under extremely difficult conditions during his three years of travel throughout China. Together, these artifacts provide a comprehensive record of Chinese culture during that time.

In China, the secrets of kitemaking have been passed down through the family for generations. Like other folk arts, the intricacies of this craft were closely guarded. Only recently, with the establishment of regional folk art institutes, have kitemaking skills spread to a larger number of artisans.
Making a truly fine kite requires years of training and practice, yet a simple kite can be made by almost anyone. Displayed here are some of the tools and materials used in kitemaking. Although Chinese kites are made in a wide range of sizes and shapes, they all have common elements.
First, there is the frame, usually made of split bamboo, a material that is light, strong and flexible. It can readily be bent into different shapes.
Next, there is the covering. Two kinds are commonly used. Rice paper is as tough as cloth and relatively inexpensive. It’s also an easy material to decorate. Silk is used in more expensive kites. This durable material is both strong and light in weight.
Tails are required on all flat kites, because they provide stability by virtue of their weight and air resistance. Three dimensional kites are naturally stable and don’t require tails. Kite tails are usually made of cord and knotted strips of cloth.

There are a number of forces that cause a kite to fly. The most important one, of course, is the wind.
A kite is designed to lean into the wind, like a wedge. According to the strength of the wind, a kite moves in a great circle, with the string as its radius. A strong wind will blow the kite upward; when the wind diminishes, the kite will begin to fall. In order to keep it aloft, the kiteflyer must keep the string taut and run with the kite, thus providing an “artificial” airflow.
Some kites have a second source of lift. The kite covering billows upward slightly. As the wind blows
across this surface, the air pressure is lowered according to the scientific law known as Bernoulli’s principle. The air pressure on the bottom surface is thus proportionately greater than the top, and the kite rises. This is also why airplanes fly.

Funding for the exhibit is provided in part by the National Endowment for, the Arts, a federal agency; the California Arts Council; and the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund.