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
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.