Flying high

Updated: 2012-04-06 07:54

By Zhang Lei (China Daily)

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Flying high
Little Shining Man is a high-tech modular kite conceived by two British artists, Heather Peak and Ivan Morison. Provided to China Daily

Chinese aviation invention soars to new heights

On the British island of Jersey in December, a contraption made of fiber rods, aerospace fabric normally reserved for yacht sails and prototype nylon connectors was spotted in the sky. But the Little Shining Man was not a UFO - it was a high-tech modular kite conceived by two British artists, Heather Peak and Ivan Morison, and designed by the Birmingham company Queen & Crawford.

The pair's latest take on what many consider to be an ancient Chinese invention formed part of a resurgence of interest in the object at home and abroad.

Kite flying is now a popular activity in the West, but "unlike taichi or Chinese kungfu, kites have long lost their place as a 'Chinese symbol'. Few people in the West would associate the kite with its Chinese origins unless they read about it in some history book", says Liu Zhenze, a researcher with the Beijing Folk Literature and Art Society.

"We often hear a popular saying in China, to become 'more national, more international'. The kite is a proof of Chinese cultural expansion that is deeply rooted in local traditions without being overtly Chinese."

In their home country, some time-honored kite brands have not only survived into modern times but are riding on a renewed wave of interest abroad.

In Beijing "Ha-styled kites" have enjoyed more than 160 years of fame and, according to Ha Yiqi, the fourth-generation maker of the brand, one of his family's kites once sold for $3,000 (2,249 euros) in the United States.

Like most kites made in the traditional way, Ha Yiqi's kites involve complex decorative patterns with symbolic meanings. To make them light enough for flight, Ha uses watercolors, and oil paints are used only on larger kites. These help make up kites of various shapes and sizes with different structures and purposes, and suited to different conditions for flying.

Seven to nine coats of paint are applied to make the colors on his kites stronger. The kites are usually made with cotton paper, although some larger kites are made of silk. Core frames are made of extremely thin bamboo held together with thin threads.

Kites were invented in China more than two millenia ago and their function has evolved over the years. Kites were originally used by the military for signaling, delivering supplies and observation. From the time of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when social stability and peace peaked, the use of kites gradually shifted from military to entertainment purposes.

The development and craftsmanship of Chinese kites reached a high during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The kites took on a rich variety of shapes, sizes, designs and decorations. Ha's family started and built on their brand during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

While Ha's kites were typical of Beijing-styled ones, they failed to attract adequate buyers in 2003. Overseas sales plunged from the 6,000 pieces sold in a year on average to practically zero.

"I was stuck in the kite business and there was no way I could get out since I invested all my money in it", he says.

"I considered finding another job, but I came to the conclusion that I had a responsibility to continue the family legacy."

Despite his renewed efforts to save his kites, the market was still bad. Then one day a man and his wife visited Ha and wanted to buy 80 kites. He was thrilled that the buyer turned out to be none other than the then director of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, Yang Yuanyuan.

Yang asked Ha if he could make the kites "as tiny as possible", so that Yang could send them to his foreign friends as souvenirs that best symbolized Chinese space technology.

After all, the kite is considered to be the ancestor of modern aircraft. It is listed as a crucial scientific invention of the Chinese in the classic Science and Civilization in China, by the British scientist, historian and sinologist Joseph Needham. The introduction of Chinese kites displayed at the US National Air and Space Museum in Washington similarly mentions that Chinese kites are part of the earliest forms of aviation by humankind.

"Making kites that cannot fly? I couldn't accept the idea at first. After discussing with my father, he helped me apply our old technique onto tiny kites," Ha says.

Since then, he has started making kites that cannot fly and 80 percent are the tiny, souvenir ones that Yang wanted.

Still, Ha's new take on the Chinese craft is totally different from the apprentice track normally taken to pass on traditional skills.

To see if Ha was truly qualified to become the family's fourth-generation kite maker, his father asked him to make a lion kite, a bird kite, a doll kite and a fish kite - and all of them had to fly successfully. So far, Ha has made more than 100 different kinds of kites. The biggest kite is 350 meters long and the smallest one is just four centimeters long.

Ha's family has won many international awards for their unique kite-making techniques. In 1915 his grandfather presented four kites at the Panama Canal to celebrate its opening and won a silver award at the Panama Pacific International Exposition. A US collector bought three kites from Ha's grandfather in 1903. Later, these three kites were displayed in the National History Museum in Los Angeles. But Ha says all that is history and now it is all about passing on the old techniques and continuing a viable business.

"From 1997 I started to focus on souvenir kites; now we sell about 300,000 souvenir kites a year", Ha says.

Ha plans to open a shop in Beijing's Haidian district this year. At the moment he only accepts bulk orders from companies or requests from museums to obtain his kites.

Like most traditional artwork, his kites continue to face competition from cheap, mass production kites.

Ha has laid out specific plans to promote and continue his family legacy.

"I have written several books on kite making, using my own experiences and the techniques of other makers. I give lectures to kite enthusiasts. I also started compiling kite drawings and about 80 drawings have been done since 2001," he says.

"I have three apprentices who I believe have the potential to master all the required skills. But it is not like the old days ... they all have their own jobs. Making kites is just part-time work for them. I have to wait and see who is the best person to take up the baton."