Written by Maria Giglio
When you fly a kite you stare at it floating in the air and ask yourself where it will go. But have you ever wondered where does a kite come from? Surprise, surprise… China, naturally! The Chinese kite is called Fēngzhēng (風箏), which literally means ‘air (fēng) zither (zhēng)’. I’ll get to that later but first, a little bit of history that you’ll love. Ready? Then fasten your seatbelt and let’s fly away!
The rise (and fall) of a wooden bird
Would you believe me if I told you that the first kite prototype was invented by a philosopher? You better do! According to some ancient texts, more than 2000 years ago, Mozi (470-391 B.C.), the founder of Mohist philosophy designed a bird-shaped tool made of wood, the mu yuan (‘wooden bird’). According to the story, it took Mozi three years to complete the mu yuan and… only one day to wreck it after a short flight! No wonder that as soon as paper was invented, kites started to be made with it and to be named zhi yuan (‘paper bird’).
Fun fact: originally the kite hasn’t always been a toy, but employed as a war tool. Actually, the military use of kites was still widespread even in modern times.
The earliest written evidence of flying war kites in fact dates to general Han Xin, who served under the reign of Han Emperor Gao Zu (202-195 BC). According to the record, general Han Xin used a kite to estimate the distance from an enemy town, so to build a tunnel of the same length to breach the city.
Another case of military use of flying kites is that of Emperor Wu of Liang (464-549 BC). In 549, dissident general Hou Jing surrounded the city of Tai, where the Emperor and his family resided. Since there was no possibility to launch the alarm outside the wall without risking being breached, the Emperor sent out a kite as a carrier pigeon to request extra troops. Unfortunately, while flying the kite was spotted by the enemies who shot it down believing it was a demon. After that episode, the city was taken.
Finally, kites had also been used as bombs for a while. During Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) they were in fact filled with gunpowder and firecrackers – which, by the way, were both also invented by Ancient Chinese – to fly over the enemy campsites and explode. The kites, which were usually crow-shaped, were also known as God Fire Crows and said to be able to carry up to 500 grams of incendiary powder.
The Kite’s redemption song
Let me guess. You are confused. How on earth – or in sky? – such an infernal object became an innocent toy for children, praised and raised all around the world? How did it turn from a symbol of war to one of peace and freedom?
Well, the kites as we know them started to arise during Tang dynasty (around 600 A.D.). Since then, they have been diffused among people of all age and social class in China.
Originally, a kite was equipped with a small bamboo bow and a silk string, so to make it sound like an harp while flying in the air, due to the vibration of the string. This finally explains why the Chinese word for kite is Fēngzhēng (風箏), air zither. The zither is in fact a particular kind of string instrument – from Ancient Greek kithara (κιθάρα) to which also guitar owes its name.
A kite of magic
Over time, the kite has gained a mystical reputation in China. In the past, people lifted musical kites to avert evil spirits with their vibrato. Letting a kite go was instead a sign of bad luck, as it meant to send away protection.
Kites were also considered to have divinatory powers. In his memoirs, Marco Polo reported that before sailing, the crew built a huge kite and tied it to a man – usually a drunk person or a fool – in high wind: only if the kite rose vertically they would sail.
By the 7th century, kites had conquered the Japanese sky, where they were brought by Buddhist monks and kept their mystical fame. In Japanese culture the use of kites was in fact associated with good luck and especially with rich crops.
From East to West: from kite to airplanes
Already in 1500, flying kites had become very popular around all Asia. From China, to Japan and India, , they have become the favourite pastime for all generations and social classes. The time had come to let kites known by the rest of the world.
The diffusion of kites in Europe is due to explorers such as Marco Polo. However, it wasn’t love at first kite. At first, European only regarded them as exotic souvenirs and started to take them seriously only in 18th century. Brightest inventors of the Western world started to use their knowledge of the kite for scientific purposes.
In 1752, Benjamin Franklin, with the assistance of his son, flew a kite towards a thunder cloud to collect electricity through its conductive wire, thus discovering that lightning and electricity were produced by the same phenomenon. The Wrights brothers used kites for their flight experiments. Slowly all this took to the invention of the airplane at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Today, we ask ourselves if a man can fly: we have built kites, and airplanes, but the answer is still no. But maybe, if it wasn’t for Mozi and his wooden bird, we wouldn’t dare even asking.
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