Chinese kites, as we know them today, may have originated during the Chin dynasty (859 – 376 BCE) and the Zhao dynasty (518 – 222 BCE).
Why was the Kite Invented? What Problem did it Solve?
Although there is no actual date for the making or flying of the first Chinese kite, there is evidence of kites being used to send messages during wars in these dynasties. Much like ancient people’s use of signal fires on top of mountains, another reason to build and fly kites may have been as a signal to warn of an approaching enemy or caravan.
Some Ancient Chinese history tells of kites that were strong enough to hold people. If the history is true, kites held soldiers, which allowed them to fire arrows onto enemies.
Other stories describe sailors tied to kites. If the kites, holding the sailors, flew high from the ship, the trip would be good. If the kites with the sailors didn’t soar, then it wasn’t a good time to make the trip.
How Ancient Chinese Kites were Made
Ancient kites were heavier than modern kites. The original kites were made from wood frames covered with cloth. Paper, as we know it today, wasn’t invented until the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220 CE). This required that the earliest Ancient Chinese use much heavier material, such as linen or cotton, to cover the heavy wood frames.
Ancient Chinese kites were stamped with wood cuts or were hand painted. Animals and views from nature were most often depicted on the kites.
By the Tang dynasty (619 – 907 CE), the Ancient Chinese had switched from using wood from trees to bamboo from grass to make kite frames. Additionally, kite makers switched from linen and cotton to silk and paper for covering the frame. String went from heavy wool or linen to lighter weight cotton and silk. These newer, more lightweight, materials allowed the Ancient Chinese to make kites with separate parts, such as centipede kites, and to fly the kites higher.
In the last two dynasties of the Ancient Chinese era, the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) and the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911 CE), kite making became an art form and kites were more readily available to everyone. Manufacturing kites was easier as more tools were available to shape the bamboo. Mass production of paper and silk allowed for quicker manufacturing.
By end of the Ancient Chinese dynasties, having fun flying kites became more important than the signaling of approaching armies or foretelling good traveling over water. As kites became more elaborate with multiple parts, long tails, and a lot of colors, kites became an art form and flying them became a pleasure.
Ancient Chinese Kite Designs
Different styles of kites were developed over the years.
The centipede style looks dramatic when flying high in the sky with a large dragon-like head and a segmented body. Depending on how long the centipede kite is, it takes many people to get it into the air and keep it flying high or if the centipede kite is a small one the thrill of flying a dragon can be had by one person.
Another style of kite, the hard-winged kite, is more like a real butterfly. The butterfly shape is made of piece of bamboo, which make the kite rigid with the same sized “wings” on each side of a central bamboo core. Hard-winged kites have painted paper or silk stretched over the bamboo. The colors and patterns on the paper or silk are the same on both wings of the kite, thus the image of a butterfly is seen against the blue sky.
Soft-winged kites are a third style. They are similar to the hard-winged kites with a butterfly style, but they have multiple wings and only one site of wings is rigid. When these kites are flying, they look like a multi-winged fluttery butterfly high overhead.
A fourth style of kite is a flat kite. The shape of this kite resembles a square. The frame, made from bamboo, is rigid. The paper or silk stretches to the edge of the frame.