The history of Chinese kites stretches over thousands of years, and China has a very long literary tradition, so the facts below are based on a number of specific events that are recorded in ancient Chinese books.
1000 BC to 0 BC
Somewhere between 770 BC and 221 BC large wooden kites called muyuan were invented for military purposes. This period actually contained 2 separate periods of Chinese history, the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC – 476 BC) and the following Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Kites were seen as technology, and it seems the first ones were invented in the province of Shandong.
Written documents about kites date at 478 BC when a Chinese Philosopher named Mo Zi who developed a man-lifting kite over a period of 3 years. It was called the Wooden-Black-Eard-Kite. At least one more kite of this design was made in later years, by other craftsmen.
There is a record of further development of these kites during the Chu-Han War of 203-202 BC. Besides spying on enemy positions, kites were sometimes used to deliver urgent messages. Not sure how, maybe a guy suspended from the kite cranking out Morse code on a Chinese lantern? 😉 Just trying to lighten up this deathly-dull history for you!
1000 AD to 2000 AD
The history of Chinese kites after 1000 AD saw kites becoming more popular in all levels of Chinese society. If you couldn’t afford silk, you could always use paper! Some time after this, kite flying became a seasonal activity. Most flying was done during and after Chinese New Year and through to March or April. For some areas of China, the winds were better for kite flying at these times.
Finally, there sprung up a belief that kite flying was good for your health. This was around the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Other somewhat superstitious ideas were around at this time too. For example, letting go of the kite string might get rid of back luck or illness as the kite drifted away. On the other hand, picking up a kite lost by someone else would bring bad luck!
By the late 1900s, the Chinese had organized large kite flying festivals where the whole range of kites were on show. The keenest kite makers would show off their best kites. Just like other kite festivals around the world.
It’s hard to beat large Chinese Dragon kites for sheer spectacle! One of these was over 300 meters (1000 feet) long and won first place in an International Kite Festival held in Italy. The same kite can still be seen in the Weifang Kite Museum.
Since 2000 AD
Although all the traditional forms of Chinese kites can still be seen, some Chinese kite makers are getting more adventurous these days. New innovative designs, ‘art kites’ and novelty designs are appearing. This is just like the Western kite scene. With travel and communication so easy these days, I guess Eastern and Western kite making is bound to merge together even more in the future!
The history of Chinese kites features yearly festivals. These are still popular, for example the World Kite Festival at Weifang, in Shandong Province. Shandong?! Hey, that’s where the very first kites that we know about were constructed and flown. How about that. Full circle.
To see the artifacts of Chinese kite history purely as art, you can see a great display at the International Kite Museum, also in WeiFang. You can walk down the halls and visually take in much of the history of Chinese kites.