Artists: Ha Yi Qi and Weifang Kite Artists
Media: Paper or silk, bamboo, paint
Overview of Unit: The making and flying of kites in China began thousands of years ago. By the ninth century, kites were being flown in Korea, Japan, the Middle East, and Europe. In the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) discovered lightening as a form of electricity by using a kite. Later, Wilbur and Orville Wright (1867-1912 and 1871-1948) used the aerodynamic principles learned from experimenting with kites in the development of the airplane. Kites have had serious uses throughout history, in both military and ceremonial contexts such as honoring the dead. Today, though, they are mostly known by the general public to be items of beauty and play.
The main kite-flying season in China begins with the Chinese New Year, usually in January or February. By the end of the season, the Qingming Festival (usually in March or April) people spend time outdoors enjoying the springtime scenery, tending to their ancestors’ graves, and flying kites. Ha Yi Qi is a fourth-generation kite maker, now living in Beijing, whose works are highly valued collectors items, often used for display. The kite making factory in Weifang, Shandong province, makes thousands of kites. Collectors purchase some for display and decoration, but most Weifang kites are made to be flown. They are enjoyed for their movement and beauty in the sky.
Philosophy/Folklore: Kites need the wind in order to fly. They help us see the wind. In 1839 Victorian poet Christina Rosetti wrote this poem about the wind:
Who Has Seen the Wind
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The Wind is passing by.
Most of us often don’t pay much attention to the wind unless it gets really strong. We spend a lot of our time in cars and houses with heating and air-conditioning. Our heads are bowed to the earth as we move through space checking our cellphones for messages. But some artists and folklorists pay attention to the role the wind plays in how we understand the world. Seeing a kite flying in the sky is different from seeing one in a museum. If it is in the sky, we pay attention to the wind; if we see a kite in a museum, we may not think about the wind.
A kite seen in the context of the sky is like experiencing a mask or a costume on a performer. Movement gives it added meaning. For many Chinese, a flown kite touches the gods and the ancestors who live in the sky. Like Tibetan prayer flags that blow their messages into the wind to be read by the gods, the wind connects us to that which can become visible through the arts.
The wind is so ubiquitous in most places that it isn’t always noticed. This lesson seeks out the wind and recognizes when it exists, both visually and by way of sound.
Animals and insects are common subjects for Chinese kites. This lesson investigates the meaning of the animals and insects on kites from different cultural perspectives.
Many artists use the wind as part of their art making. This lesson challenges the participant to recognize the ways in which art that uses the wind can relate to an artist’s cultural context; it also invites the student to make a wind-powered artwork.