Written by Juliette Qi
History of the Chinese Fan
The history of the manufacture of traditional Chinese fans dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 23 AD). The first fans were made of feathers and because of this, the Chinese character for the word “fan” takes the character for the word “feather” as its radical. Bamboo was also used as early as the 2nd century to make fans.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the folded fan appeared in China for the first time as “Japanese Fan” and became very popular during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. It is said that it was in Japan that the folded fan was invented in the 9th century, before being introduced into China through Korea.
In ancient times, fans were used to keep the air fresh and to ward off sunlight and dust. People from all walks of life loved fans for their practical use.
For practical purposes, the most commonly used were the palm leaf fans. In constrast, some fans that were made of quality materials and demonstrated great artistic skills were mostly used for decoration. Ivory fans, for example, were paid as tribute to the imperial court and were regarded as symbols of power and social status. Some of the paintings decorating the fans reached the heights of virtuosity, with many including calligraphy work and poems inscribed by masters.
The use of the Chinese fan as a combat weapon may seem more surprising to Westerners. Indeed, some martial arts used war fans as weapons of battle. This type of fan with a steel mount served at the same time as a rallying sign , and in the direction of troops and for protection during saber fights.
The practical use of fans has decreased with the innovation of electric fans and the air conditioner. Traditional fans, however, are still known for their artistic value, especially those featuring beautiful paintings. Fans can also made of various materials, such as sandalwood, feather, paper, silk, bamboo, etc.
Beyond its common practical uses, fans also serve as an accessory of communication in the hands of Chinese theater actors. The roundness and silky softness of fans attributed to female roles accentuate their seduction, while folding fans attributed to male roles tend to emphasize their dignity and intelligence. Thus, through gestures made with a fan, an actor manifests his good manners (Zhuge Kongming with his fan of feathers) or his sense of humor (Jigong with his broken fan).
Craft as Cultural Heritage
There are different styles and traditions for crafting fans in different regions of China. Suzhou fans are usually made of silk and sandalwood, those of Hangzhou in black paper, those of Sichuan bamboo, those of Guangdong in palm leaves, etc.
Fans are a characteristic product of traditional Chinese craftsmanship. Even though fans with a European flavor were made for exportation from the 17th century, this accessory has remained an essential element of the art of living in Chinese culture.
About Interact China
“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide”
Aileen & Norman co-founded Interact China in 2004 with specialization in fine Oriental Aesthetic products handmade by ethnic minorities & Han Chinese. Having direct partnerships with artisans, designers, craft masters and tailors, along with 10 years solid experience in e-commerce via InteractChina.com, we position well to bridge talented artisans in the East with the rest of the world, and bring you direct finely selected products that are of good quality and aesthetic taste.
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