Kite Flying - Asia Traditions

Kite Flying - Asia Traditions

Although kite flying is an occasional pastime enjoyed throughout the world, it is one of the oldest and wide-spread traditions in Asia. Kite flying festivals and kite combats are an institution in Southeast Asia as they are in North Asia. In clear weather when an ideal breeze of between 12-30 kilometers blows across Asia, the skies above are dotted with colorful shapes and sizes. Adults and children, but mostly adults, take to the fields for an activity taken equally seriously as it was by their animistic ancestors who once regarded kites as a means of communicating with the gods of the wind and sky, and for fending off evil spirits.

There is no definite record of where and when kite flying began. The Greek scientist Arochyles is believed to have developed the first kite around 400BC. Kites have been in use in parts of Asia for over 2000 years where they have figured in folk tales and myths and their practical use has been demonstrated throughout the ages. Chinese annals record the use of a kite by physicians hoping to leave a sick child open-mouthed with awe, thus letting fever out of his body. But the earliest recorded use of a kite in Asia was during the Han Dynasty (206BC-200AD) in China which suggests that kite flying formally began there. The Emperor Han Kao Chi devised a kite from bamboo and ricepaper and used the kite's string to estimate the distance to the walls of an enemy fort. Based on this estimate, a tunnel was dug to the wall and the emperor overcame his foe.

Chinese kite makers have used their talents to turn out kites in the shape of peacocks, doves, pheasants and other birds over the centuries. They also fashioned kites in the shape of beautiful women. The Chinese have two names for these playthings of the sky: feng cheng meaning "wind harpsichord" and yao tze or "sparrow hawk". The name "wind harpishord" comes from the custom still current today, especially around Beijing where the wind is slightly stronger in the spring, of fastening bamboo tubes to the string, head or tail of a fancy kite so the hollow tubes play a flute-like tune when the wind passes through. In China each April at the city of Wiefeng, an international kite festival is held as a continuation of that country's long kite flying tradition.

If China gave Asia the kite, then Korea connected to China would have received an early introduction to this pastime, and they too used the kite to a practical advantage. A Korean general once hung a lighted lantern on a large kite as a signal to his troops. Another general used a kite to carry a line conveying a cable needed to begin the building of a bridge across a river. Koreans customarily fly kites only during the first two weeks of spring but use much bigger kites than their Chinese counterparts. They also hold kite fighting contests in which two or more participants try and sever the lines of competing kite flyers. Large kites are favored in Korea, as they are in Japan as these countries surrounded by sea are subject to strong winds.

Either from China or Korea, kite flying reached Japan at an early time where it attained some religious significance. Most kite flying in Japan takes place from the ground of temples which are often situated at a higher altitude to other buildings. An old belief in Japan its that a kite flying above a building keeps evil spirits away. Japanese kites range from large models requiring up to 50 men to launch to miniature kites as tiny as a postage stamp. The largest kite ever built in Japan was in Narito City in 1936. Made of more than 3000 sheets of paper, it weighed nearly nine tons and required a strong wind and hundreds of men to launch. In early May, kite flying takes place more on Boy's Day than any other.

In Southeast Asia, kite flying presumably derived from south China. Thailand has a long and colorful kite flying history which began in the 13th century after a king and his entire court took up the pastime. The practice gained added stature in the 17th century when the kite became instrumental in the king's suppression of  revolt in the now historical world heritage town of Ayuthaya north of Bangkok. Explosives were tied to the strings of huge "male" kites called chulas and flown over the town, burning houses and wreaking such havoc that the rebels surrendered. The chula these days resembles an elongated star, and is used in contests against the smaller pakpao, or "female" kite in the battle of the sexes where opposing kites attempt to pull the other down into either male or female territory. These matches are arranged by the Thai Sports Association and held in Bangkok's Pra Mane grounds opposite the Royal Palace.

Malaysians prefer richly colored kites, a tradition which goes back to the time when kites were a means of reaching the spirits of the wind and the sky. It was vital that the kite be elaborately decorated so as to find favor when it reached the spirit realm. Today, kite making and flying in Malaysia in concentrated in Kelantan and Terengganu after the rice harvest. The most popular variety is the moon kite called wau bulan which inspired the symbol of the country's national airline (MAS Airline). In Sarawak where many houses are built on stilts in the water, people fly a white kite overhead night and day to keep away evil spirits.

The distinctive Philippine kite is the large formidable competition kite called guryon which requires the skills of 20 to fly it. This gigantic kite strung with colorful tassels and talons is capable of ripping an opponent's kite to shreds. Often thick rubber bands are stretched across the kite's head to create the howling sound of hurricane winds.

Kites in Bali (Indonesia) and Sumatra are also created to make a roaring sound by tying a bamboo pipe to the upper part of the kite. It is believed that the noise will drive away evil spirits. In Indonesia and the Philippines as in Malaysia, kite flying usually follows after harvest time.

Not merely a plaything, a friendly social or competitive activity, a tool in animistic beliefs or an ancient instrument for military use, the kite has also featured in scientific endeavors. In 1762, Benjamin Franklin hung a metal key from a kite string to test his theory of the electrical nature of lightning. Meteorologists have used kites to study the atmosphere and until the invention of the airplane, military men made efforts to build kites strong enough to lift man into the sky.

But so ingrained is the tradition of kite flying in Asia, most if not all countries hold annual international kite flying competitions or festivals where competitors and spectators still thrill to the hum of "harpsichords" in the sky.

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