High As A Kite...

23rd July 2010

The sight of a small boy running up a hill, trailing a reluctant kite (possibly home-made) behind him, and collapsing in a fit of giggles at his own ineptitude, reminded Emma Carter of one of childhood’s – and summer’s – simplest pleasures. Here she takes a look at some of the traditions and legends associated with this lovely, lazy pastime…

It may be fanciful but kite flying always seems such a simple method of really getting in touch with nature – a way to feel the energy of the wind, and of the planet, and to respond to it directly…

Whether the earliest kite-makers and flyers felt the same is impossible to know, but certainly there’s evidence that for at least some of the ancient Asian peoples, responsible for the invention and development of kites, there was a religious and spiritual dimension – as well as a high degree of practical value. The kite was less of a plaything, and more a useful tool.

The earliest kites seem to have been inspired by birds (and, not surprisingly, many modern versions still have bird designs on them). Legend suggests that the first kite was built by the philosopher Mo Di (468-376 BC), who spent around three years making ‘an eagle with wood’, to a design then refined by his pupil Gongshu Ban, who created a ‘bamboo magpie’, infilled with silk, which he flew continuously for three days.

There are few written references to confirm precisely the origins of kite making and flying, sadly… but there is, instead, an abundance of legend and story – such as the Chinese tale of Han Hsin: commander of a rebel army, he flew a kite over the walls of a city that he was besieging… when it was directly over the Emperor’s palace, he marked the string, reeled it in and measured it, thus working out the exact distance that his troops would need to tunnel in order to come up inside the palace walls. (An alternative version relates that Han Hsin had himself tied to the kite and was flown over the enemy camp by night; the soldiers heard a voice overhead threatening them with death if they remained inside the palace walls. Obligingly, the next day, most of them fled.). Victory, in either case, was his – and thus the Western Han dynasty, destined to rule China for the next two hundred years, came to power.

Japanese stories also feature kites used to carry or lift people for military or other purposes. One fable tells of a Samurai warrior, who was exiled with his son to a desert island. The warrior built a large kite, tied his son to it, and then flew him to the mainland. Another tale, from the 16th century, recounts how famous robber Kakinoki Kinsuke was lifted by a kite to enable him to steal the scales from golden dolphins at the top of a tower. He completed his mission, and landed safely – but was later arrested, and he and his family were punished by being boiled in oil.

In the Pacific islands, the earliest kite frameworks were made from leaves, bark and sticks, and were used as aerial fishing rods for hundreds of years, carrying bait far out over the sea. Kites were also invested with divine powers, used in matters of justice and to determine land ownership: a kite would be formally released, and a claim made to the area in which it fell… this was considered to be a direct communication from one of the gods. Kite-god dramas are also prolific in Hawaiian legends, where kites were perceived as celestial objects flown by the gods in fierce struggles between themselves and the elements.

Kite flying seems to have developed into a recreation around 700AD, during the rule of the Tang dynasty. The royal family and their courtiers were apparently addicted to this novel sport, with the Emperor Xuanzong obsessed by a kite named Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea. (An unusual title, sure, but certainly far more appealing than contemporary kites, where names are more of the Limbo Blue, Bebop Flash and Bolero Hot variety…)

The invention of paper made kites cost less to produce, and their popularity spread among the common people. The hobby was eventually spread by traders from China to Korea, and across Asia to India. Each area developed its own style of kite and its own cultural purpose for flying them. Kite culture probably reached Japan from China and Korea some time between the sixth and eighth centuries – and from then Japan was key to kite development. Indeed, the word for ‘kite’ first appeared in a Japanese dictionary compiled in 981 AD, when it was known as a ‘paper hawk’. The shape began to evolve from the basic rectangle, and new variants – dragons, cranes, fish, turtles – appeared, each with their own meaning. They were flown at religious festivals, and as part of sacred ceremonies. Even in modern Japan, kites are still flown at New Year, to offer thanks for the past year’s successes, and in hope of a good year to come. In Korea, it is tradition to write the name and birthdate of a male child on a kite and fly it.

Be wary though, if you should find a kite abandoned, and choose to take it for yourself. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), in particular, custom and superstition dictated that flying a kite and letting it go would send off one's bad luck and illness. It would, therefore, bring bad luck if one should pick up a kite lost – or sent off – by someone else…

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