The Kite Capital of China
I have spent a year teaching English in a middle school in the city of Weifang in Shandong Province in China. Weifang is one of many thriving industrial cities in East China. With sophisticated motorways, department stores, luxury hotels and a diverse manufacturing base Weifang tries to brand itself as a place for indigenous entrepreneurs and foreign investors. One special thing about the city is its annual Kite Festival, when competing kite flying teams from around China and the world come to show off their skills in an ancient hobby and sport. Since the early 1980s Weifang has proudly described itself as the Kite Capital of the World.
Most of us are familiar with young children tripping along a windy beach in the summer trailing a colourful plastic kite with streamers attached. More often than not their kites flutter erratically and never take flight for more than a minute before being dished downwards to the ground. For the children, sometimes observed by a smiling but inwardly frustrated parent, it is an annual sensation of “being by the seaside” and immersing oneself in the fresh salty air under a benevolent sun if there are no obstructing clouds to conceal it. Occasionally at some beaches we may chance to observe a solitary adult, usually a man, earnestly flying a yellow coloured box kite that he has managed with much skill and determination to raise 50 metres or higher into the air. This is the serious kite flyer, a rare species in Ireland, following an ancient art that began thousands of years ago in China.
Kite flying for pleasure and other purposes seems to have been invented, independently, more than two thousand years ago in China and Malaysia. In China, during the Han dynasty around 200 BC, an army general used a kite to calculate the distance that a secret tunnel needed to be dug in order to allow soldiers to enter a besieged palace. The first recorded writing about kite flying in China dates from about 960 AD, but folklore evidence points to the practice many centuries earlier than this.
Kites certainly had their origins in Asia and it wasn’t until the Italian explorer Marco Polo returned from his travels in China to Europe in 1295 AD that kite flying became a subject of interest in this part of the world. There are old library books, some in Latin, dating from the 14th century onwards containing descriptions and drawings related to the subject.
Scientists have used kites to aid their researches. So, in 1749, the Scottish weather observer Alexander Smith attached thermometers to kites in order to measure air temperatures at different levels of altitude. The most famous instance of scientific discovery occurred in 1752 when Benjamin Franklin in the USA flew a kite, dangerously, to show a similarity between static electricity and lightning.
Kite Flying Festivals
From ancient times kite flying festivals have taken place in Asia. Some of these had their origins in cultural customs, such as a region of Thailand where peasant farmers flew kites before the monsoon rains to ask their gods for a trouble-free farming season.
Today, as part of the modern tourist industry, there are annual kite festivals in such countries as China, India, Thailand, Korea, Japan and Malaysia.
I am familiar with the kite festival in the city of Weifang in the province of Shandong in the north-eastern part of China. While teaching at a local school I was taken to a special field outside the city to enjoy an afternoon of kite flying competitions. The field was on a raised plateau overlooking fields of vegetables and wheat, with villages and the city suburbs in the distance. There was an administrative building specially constructed for adjudication and prize giving ceremonies. All around the large field, equal to the area of two football stadiums, were stalls selling soft drinks, snacks and souvenirs. Some stalls were colourfully decorated with locally made silk kites.
But the main focus of activity was the serious kite flying being done by individuals and teams. Kites came in all shapes, sizes and combinations of colours. I saw small swift triangle-shaped Hornet kites with dual controls being skillfully somersaulted and dive-bombed through the air by their handlers. Special air holed attachments created loud buzzing noises that reminded me of those WWII Japanese Stuka attack planes portrayed in war films. Other individuals flew the traditional diamond-shaped kite with which we are familiar at the Irish seaside. Some individuals had managed to raise simple flat square shaped kites to heights of several hundreds of metres, and only had to move their feet along the grass covered ground a little bit now and again. I got the impression that some individuals were there only for pleasure flying and did not wish to enter the supervised competitions. There was plenty of airspace for competitors and non-competitors alike, which gave the occasion the family atmosphere that drew parents and children to the site every day of the week-long festival.
Wandering around the huge field I came across a team of six Danish competitors laying out a huge box kite partly resembling the wings of a biped aeroplane dating back to the pioneering days of the 1920s. In another place I saw a man from Brazil showing an illustrated book on Latin American kite flying to an interested group of Chinese locals, while someone interpreted for him and a companion held aloft a fluttering Brazilian flag with its blue globe and dashing yellow background. I saw elsewhere some foreigners who spoke with North American accents. This figured, because Weifang Kite Federation is twinned with its counterpart in the west coast aeroplane building city of Seattle in Washington State.
Getting a huge kite to fly requires all the energy and skill of adult teams ranging from 6 to possibly 20 members. First the kite with all its bamboo hinges, connecting nylon strings, attached tails and hand painted paraphernalia such as dragon masks, birds’ talons and beaks and any other devices artistically made by craftsmen has to be carefully unpacked. Then team members lovingly lay out the device on the ground, making sure that no strings are entangled and no parts have become loose. A team trainer surveys wind direction and orders the flyers where to stand and at what angle to the wind. An anchor man or two, clinging to the wooden handle at the beginning of the coiled nylon strings, stand apart from those holding the kite a couple of metres above the ground. Everybody is on high alert until the trainer, aware that a strong burst of wind is constant rather than casual, shouts the order for the anchor men to start running into the wind while team members run with them ready to release the apparatus. This is the moment of truth. White-cloaked competition officials are observing, notebooks in hand.
This is how I saw a team of twelve Chinese men delicately launch a long, green-yellow giant cobra-shaped kite with a long snaking tail. It lifted steeply into the air fluttering majestically, perhaps fiercely, in all its artistic glory, the full shape of its complicated structure being filled and elongated in flight. Alas, this time it rose fully about twenty metres and struggled to stay aloft but for a couple of minutes before a strong downwind dashed it brutally to the ground as spectators fanned out for safety. The officials consulted with other officials seated at tables on the edge of the field. The cobra kite had failed in the first attempted launch. A couple of more attempts were allowed by the rules. I moved on while the team made further laborious preparations.
I observed a great blue whale kite, inflated with the windstream, floating in a spectacular manner high in the sky as a man maneuvered the handle while a companion paid out extra lengths of nylon string from a round cable wheel. To ensure balance and perfect shape there were more than half a dozen individual nylon strings attached to various parts of the blue whale, such as the nose, the fins and the underbelly. All these strings joined together ten metres from the structure and from that point the entire kite was linked to the distant ground by one strong single line of nylon.
The Weifang Kite Festival is an annual event held at the end of April when winter is over and there is no danger of rain. It is generally a time when strong spring winds blow across the province. Much work goes into the organization of the festival, which the city government regards as a trademark of the modern industrial and commercial city.
All kinds of events take place. There is always a gala opening in a local conference centre. Fireworks are let off in the evening. Fashion displays are held; there may be a Miss Kite Festival competition. There are shows in local theatres and exhibition venues. Groups of school children are ferried to the kite competition venue.
Kite making is an important aspect of art and commerce in the city. With other foreign teachers I visited a folk village and museum outside the city limits, where I saw trained workers cutting and painting the silk parts of kites that were being manufactured. Silk is both light and strong and lends itself to decoration. I saw some women from the factory taking bundles of newly made kites to be tested for aeronautical reliability at a field in the middle of the folk village. Each new kite was put through its paces before being approved for packaging and supply to various outlets in China and abroad. There are many small kite shops throughout the city, where paper cuts, ornate glassware and ebony curios are also for sale. Many visitors buy kites for display in sitting rooms.
In Weifang, most of the small kites are shaped like birds of prey or butterflies. If you visit large hotels and commercial buildings you may see large dragon kites, some 10 to 20 metres long, suspended impressively from high ceilings.
Some craftsmen have acquired regional or national fame for the technical and artistic finesse of their kite creations. Demand is constant and such individuals earn a wholesome living.
Beside the river in the centre of town is the city kite museum. Here I spent an hour gleaning information about kite history and traditions and seeing fantastic structures in all shapes and sizes. In one section are proudly displayed donated kites from foreign kite clubs – from Seattle, with which Weifang kite fans have a special relationship, from Great Britain, Germany, Finland, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Brazil and so many other countries. Letters and ornamental banners from around the world testify to an amazing international kite flying fraternity.
* Kite flying in Ireland is still growing from small beginnings. David Ronan from Limerick maintains a website. Try: www.kites.org/dmr
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