The Chinese have always had an affinity for kites. For nearly 2,800 years, since the first kite was invented in Weifang in Shangdong Province, kites have held sway over the popular Chinese imagination, both young and old. The tradition of kite making is as strong as ever in Chinese culture and kites are still one of the most popular toys sold in the Middle Kingdom. On any sunny day in Tiananmen Square, you will find dozens of kite sellers flying their kites high on the breeze, hoping to make a sale.
The first Chinese kites were made from raw materials that were readily available in nature. Most often, the sails were crafted from silk, which was a strong, lightweight fabric that could withstand tearing but was still light enough to catch onto wind currents. The frames were usually made of bamboo, which was always the favored wood for construction in China because of its durability and resilience to breaking.
Since silk was rare and expensive, the sail materials were later replaced with durable fabric and paper mixtures. These paper sails could still withstand the strong pull of wind, but were less expensive to manufacture. Throughout time, kite designs progressed from very simple square frames to elaborate designs and intricate shapes. The standard diamond-shaped kite was known as a ‘fighter kite’ because it was easily maneuverable and was the best shape for winning kite flying competitions, which became immensely popular throughout Asia.
Today, Chinese kites may take any number of forms, from the simple diamond shape of a fighting kite, sometimes with images or pictures stamped onto the sails, to complex and ornate figures of animals and other objects. Some of the most popular animals for kite shapes include those that can fly, such as hawks, butterflies and dragons. Other shapes might include portraits of famous people and beloved deities, fish and mythological creatures like the phoenix.
Whatever the shape, kites are truly a universally loved toy. Children and adults the world over have been captivated by the tradition and art of the kite, a uniquely Chinese invention.