Of all the great variety of traditional Chinese Kites, the
Chinese butterfly kite is one of the best known in the West. Before mass
production of these kites began, no two of them were exactly the same. Children
turned out simple designs with the help of their parents. Skillful Chinese kite
makers crafted beautiful works of art that flew very well too. The methods of
selecting and forming the bamboo spars and fitting sails of silk or paper were
passed down through many generations.
As in ancient times, Chinese butterfly kites are still used to decorate homes and work places. It's entirely up to the owner whether to fly or just display the kite. Many of the kites available from China come with a hand-made winder with red string, and are packaged in a decorative box which compliments the kite.
Most ancient Chinese butterfly kites were made from carefully chosen bamboo and silk cloth. However, light-weight paper or tissue is sometimes used as a sail material. Also, the stems of a palm called rattan is sometimes used for curved spars, like a lot of the kites from South East Asia. Rattan is solid, unlike bamboo which is hollow and needs to be cut into strips.
Butterfly kites and other Chinese Kites were and continue to be made by artisans from all over the country. However some areas are particularly well known for their Chinese kite making. An example is Weifang, sometimes referred to as the 'City of Kites'.
A lot of patience and care goes into the construction of traditional kites. The bamboo must be split down to an appropriate width for the size of the kite. Curves are put in by heating and bending over a hot flame. You can imagine the skill required to get accurate shapes from this process!
An authentic Chinese butterfly kite has a minimum of five sticks, each of a different length.
The weight and strength of the sail material, whether tissue or silk, must be matched to the size of the kite being made. The sails are made slightly over-size, with the excess material folded over the outline of the kite frame and glued down.
Finally, like any working kite, the bridle must be attached and adjusted. If done right, the kite will fly well in a fair range of wind speeds.
With silk kites, the sail is generally painted after the kite is constructed. The kite frame conveniently holds the silk taut while the brush strokes are applied. However, mass produced silk kite sails are screen printed before being cut out and attached to the kites. Paper lends itself to having the art work done first, before it is attached to the kite frame. This includes appliqué, where colored cut-outs are glued to the sail to form a design.
Summarizing the methods, a kite can be hand-painted, screen printed, appliquéd, or even a combination of these.
The most striking Chinese butterfly kites are those which attempt to copy the look of a real butterfly, in all its rich colorful detail. Others are hand painted with traditional art scenes. For example, children holding fish or flying birds such as cranes.
In 2007, traditional butterfly kites are actively being sold online, and shipped out of China. These kites put on show centuries of kite making skill in construction and decoration. Imitations of greatly varying quality and artistic worth are also being created by kiting enthusiasts everywhere, young and old.
Modern versions, more and more, are being manufactured to cater for the strong demand for attractive working kites. The traditional techniques do not allow mass production, so frames use thermoplastic or fiberglass rod instead of bamboo. Sails can be a range of modern fabrics or film, for example nylon or Mylar. Although the range of designs is still wide, none of these kites are 'one of a kind' of course.
About the Author:
Tim Parish and his family are rediscovering the joys of kite flying. They blog their kiting fun on their My-Best-Kite.com website, and also research the kiting world. This site will introduce you to many kinds of kites and kite flying activities, including Chinese kites of course.