Art in the sky

Orcas, horses, dragons, the Monkey King from Chinese legend, skeletons, even SpongeBob. You might not expect to see this collection of animals, mythological creatures and pop culture icons flying together in the sky, but the spectacle takes place every year in the city of Weifang – the “Paper Kite Capital of the World” in Eastern China. Shandong Province.

Invented two thousand years ago in China, kites are considered the oldest flying objects created by humans. After centuries of development, kites have become one of China’s representative traditional crafts, and the kite-making technique was included in the list of China’s national intangible cultural heritage in 2006.

The traditional Chinese kite-making technique involves four steps: making the frame, covering the frame with paper, painting and decorating, and then mastering the art of kite flying.

Currently, the most prominent kite-making techniques are found in three regions: Weifang in Shandong Province, Nantong in Jiangsu Province, and Lhasa in Xizang Tibet Autonomous Region. Each of these regions has developed its own unique characteristics based on traditional dragon craftsmanship.

The city of Weifang is known as the world center of paper kite culture and is widely regarded as the birthplace of these popular flying toys. The subjects of Weifang dragons are incredibly diverse, including birds, fish, insects, cultural monuments, historical figures, myths and legends.

Today in Weifang, there is virtually no limit to the shapes or sizes of dragons that can be made to represent people’s ideals and aspirations. This variety can be seen at the annual Weifang International Paper Kite Festival, which has been held every third Saturday in April since 1984. More than 10,000 participants from more than thirty countries and regions from around the world compete in the festival every year.

Unlike the wide variety of shapes seen in Weifang, Nantong dragons are mostly rectangular. However, hexagonal, pentagonal and even octagonal dragons can also appear. Each reflects the traditional Chinese concept of “heaven, earth and people living in harmony”, as well as the theory of the five elements (fire, water, wood, gold and earth) of feng shui. For example, hexagonal dragons are associated with “water”, while octagonal dragons belong to the “wood” element.

However, the most distinctive feature of Nantong kites is the attachment of whistles of various sizes, the number of which varies from 100 to 300. Such kites have earned the nickname “aerial symphony”.

Lhasa dragons are popular in various regions of Tibet such as Lhasa, Shigatse and Zedang and have even spread to neighboring countries such as Nepal and Bhutan. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), they were especially popular with the upper social class of Tibetans.

Skill in flying the Lhasa kite is demonstrated through competitions. Experienced kite pilots can quickly rise and fall, turn and move their kites left or right with the help of strings. In these contests, battles often ensue, with the victor in flight cutting off the string of the defeated dragon, which then soars into the sky.

In Lhasa, kite flying is a seasonal pastime and kites are mainly made for sale in cities such as Lhasa and Shigatse during autumn. (Cl)

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