When I was a kid, March signaled kite-flying time. A girl between two boys, I did what my brothers did, and the three of us would go to a large field near our home where kites had less chance of winding up in a tree. We flew diamond shaped kites that my mother favored, or box kites that my father bought us. These also came with an aeronautics talk from my father. The box kite was always a favorite because it flew easily and could go very high. But usually there was only one box kite and that meant taking turns with it and negotiating for a turn. Back then I was not aware of the astonishing array of kite varieties since we had only two choices. I also did not know how very old that toy was, or its many uses other than as a toy, or that traditionally many people thought that kites were for boys.
In trying to learn about the story of kites I find it is often told back to front. Kites emerged in prehistory, so often people look at kites as they are today and try to work backwards. Some go to the earliest written sources as is traditional in history, but this does not get us to prehistoric kites. Oral histories, human migration in prehistory, and archaeology also have a part to play. But to begin close to the beginning I think we should start with a story that is very old. It appears in myths and legends in Asia and Polynesia. One way folklorists trace old tales is by by looking at motifs that provide the basic plot, or parts of the plot. The kite tale motif goes something like this:
A long time ago a man wanted to fly up to the sky and the stars. He was so determined that he built himself a kite big enough to carry him into the sky. He flew so high that he became an immortal deity.
There is a kite god among the native peoples of New Zealand, Hawai’i and other islands in Polynesia. In the Maori version of the story the man-deity becomes a kite. In Hawaiian mythology the god Maui flies a kite. In addition to these myths, kite-flying carries with it aspects of sacredness in Asian and Polynesian cultures. They provide a link between deities and humans. They are flown to honor the gods in Polynesia. They were used in divination in New Zealand. In China and Japan they may scare off bad spirits and attract good ones. Some Chinese kites have whistles and spinning discs attached to them that help scare away bad chi (a wonderful online exhibit from the University of Maine, 99 Chinese Kites, includes images of some with spinners and whistles). There are auspicious and inauspicious days to fly kites in Asia. Kites that get loose and fly away must not be touched when they land on the ground, as this may be bad luck. This important aspect of sacredness did not travel with Chinese kites to Europe as they gained popularity there in the 16th century, and so it was not passed on with the colonization of the Americas, although some peoples seem to have re-discovered sacred uses of kites.
Kites also have an important ancient use that only recently has traveled to the west. Kites have been used for fishing since prehistoric times and this seems to have begun in Malaysia with kites made from leaves and other vegetation. Simple pieced and woven leaf kites are still made in Indonesia today. Fishing kites are designed to hold a lure and a device to hold the fish from a second string attached to fly just above the water like an insect. In at least one interesting version using a puff of spider’s web, the lure itself held the fish. The use of kites as a practical fishing tool may have helped them to travel and to be shared from culture to culture. [In this exhibit, Rediscovering Cultural Treasures from the Pacific Islands, from the University of Rochester, two photographs of leaf fishing kites from Papua New Guinea can be seen.]
Kites have changed from their earliest designs and each culture where they are found has adapted them in their own customs. There are kites for fishing, sport, connection to the world of spirits and deities, warfare, and scientific inquiry. Some kite-using cultures became somewhat isolated from others and so preserve kites and their traditions from earlier eras. This seems to be true for New Zealand and Hawai’i — two distant islands that share both ancestors and similar myths about kites and uses of kites. Fighting kites, used in sport where kite-flyers try to take down their opponent’s kites, may have first emerged in China. The tradition has spread widely throughout Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East with variations in different cultures. Japanese history says that kites were brought there by Chinese monks between the 6th and 8th century CE. In the Edo period, beginning in 1603, Japan isolated itself and did not trade with other cultures. During this period of isolation, Japan developed its own unique forms and uses of kites. Japanese festivals which provide opportunities to fly kites include New Year’s Day, Children’s Day (May 5, formerly Boy’s Day), and the Harvest Festival. [Woodcut prints featuring kites from the Edo period are available in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Catalog.]
How old are kites? No one knows. Fragile kites do not survive to be found in archaeological excavations. But from an ethnographic point of view, migration helps provide some clues. It was long thought that Hawai’i was settled in about 800 CE. But this has recently been changed to the first or second century by archaeological finds. A recent discovery of a burial on the island of Vanuatu in Micronesia supports the idea that the migrations of peoples from Southeast Asia and Malaysia to Polynesia began in about 1600–1200 BCE. The idea of kites, their uses, and shared ideas about sacredness must have been carried by these voyagers in order for peoples in the remote parts of Polynesia to have similar kites and stories about them. So learning when the great Pacific migrations from Southeast Asia and Malaya occurred can help us to guess at the minimum age of kites (they could have been in use long before the migrations).
When we come to the early written history of kites, we find that they have already been in use and traded among various cultures for many centuries. It is often said that the Chinese invented the kite, because they wrote of various flying contraptions in ancient times. It is an old tradition in historical scholarship to look to the written record for origins. But modern historians know that an inter-disciplinary approach is best when it comes to prehistoric inventions. It is difficult to say which of the early Chinese stories of kites are legends and which are historical. But folklorists and anthropologists see value in legends and myths even if they do not provide precise historical facts, as they often tell us how people thought and felt about things in the past.
In a story written down in the third century BCE by the philosopher Han Fei Zi about events said to have occurred over a hundred years earlier, he tells of Lu Ban and his teacher Mozi who conceived and built a wooden kite that could carry him up in the air. The philosopher-inventor Lu Ban flew for three days before crashing down. In Shandong he was even said to be treated as a god by local people. Smaller silk and paper kites are said to have followed this invention. Many historians, including those in China, regard this as a legend, rather than an historical event, since physical evidence of wooden kites or wings from that period have not been found, and there are many previous accounts of flying machines in early China that are not thought to have ever been built. Large kites or multiple kites linked together can be made to hold a person aloft, but there is no solid evidence for this so early. What is clear in the works of Han Fei Zi is that kites had become culturally important in China by the time he began to write about them.
A problem with the story of Lu Ban as the inventor of kites is that the Polynesian evidence shows that kites almost certainly existed and were being widely traded before he was born. Also, inventions nearly always progress from simple to more complex forms, not the other way around. But another feature of this legend that I find interesting, is that it contains the basic motif of the man who flew into the sky using a kite and became a deity. It seems possible that that legend might have originated far away from Shandong.
The place where we currently find a story that starts from kites made of simple, natural materials and then progressing to more complex forms with sails of silk and other materials is Malaysia. It is remarkable that some of the oldest traditions of making kites have been preserved in these islands and passed on through the generations. There is also good evidence that this invention spread through trade and migration. Some think that the kite was invented twice, in China and Malaysia. But there is no great difference between kite forms in China and the early silk kites of Malaysia. For example, kites in the form of birds, stingrays, sails, and geometric forms exist in Malaysia, Polynesia, and Asia. Historic uses of kites in China are also found in Malaysia and Polynesia. Fishing kites are an example I mentioned. The use of kites carrying a torch or lantern for nighttime reconnaissance in war is another interesting and practical use of kites that history records in both Polynesia and China.
In a book created from an exhibit of Japanese kites Masaaki Modegi describes some early square kite forms that he identified as an Indonesian style. He speculates that Japan may have traded with Indonesia before the Edo period, and so acquired styles of kites from both China and Indonesia, and this is certainly possible. But it is also possible that the Indonesian style came from China, and then were preserved in Japan when it cut off outside trade. As Chinese kite flyers developed their own more popular designs, these square ones may have disappeared there. This often happens. As a cultural practice spreads and changes, some of the older forms may be found in the more remote places but not in the place of origin. I don’t know how to prove which explanation accounts for the square kites in Japan. But I think we should not assume that there were no square Indonesian-style kites in China in the past. After all, the bird-shaped kites still beloved in China and the bird-shaped kites of Indonesia, based on their appearance, might stem from a common ancestor. If we start asking questions like this, it might lead to some interesting answers.
Currently I am persuaded by the theory of one origin of kites in Malaysia. But more research is being done, and there may be more information that comes to light as scholars pursue the story of ancient kites. Evidence of kites in prehistory is extremely scarce, but what is truly remarkable is how much can still be found of early kite design in living tradition and museum specimens.
Kites continue to develop in their in their cultural meanings. The spiritual meaning of kites did not completely make the leap from Asia to Europe and the Americas. But there is a proverb that may have. Churchill is sometimes incorrectly quoted as saying “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it,” but that is another legend — he did not say that. Jean Antoine Petit-Senn included a similar proverb in a book of epigrams, “La vrai courage ressemble un cerf-volent: un vent contraire l’élève, loin de abattre” (True courage is like a kite: a contrary wind raises it, far from knocking it down), and this seems to be his version of a French proverb. There are a number of other people quoted as saying something similar — some are verifiable quotations and some are not — but the core proverb might have been imported with the kite long ago. Today the Chinese proverb is sometimes given as “Kites rise on an opposing wind” and used in motivational seminars in North America to mean that you can use forces that oppose you to rise.
I asked a colleague, Dr. Nora Yeh, to help me find the real Chinese proverb, as translations are often different from the original. She was able to find it in a Chinese poem, “Zhi Yuan” (Kite), by Zhun Kou (961-1023 CE): “a kite rises on the wind.” In the poem it means that, like a kite, the “wind” of your supporters will help you to rise. That is different meaning than the version found in European and American usage, yet very close to the same phrase. Proverbs often have multiple meanings and it will take more research to find if the meaning simply changed in European translations, or if the idea of raising up in response to opposition is also found in China. It would also be interesting to find out if this proverb exists in other languages. If you have further information about this, please leave a comment below!
Among the Maya in Guatemala an amazing spiritual tradition of kites has arisen, independent of Asian ideas. On Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead, known to Anglophones as All Souls’ Day), people picnic at the graveyard, kids fly small kites, and adults fly giant colorful round kites that honor deceased family members and often carry political messages concerning human rights as well. These must be launched and flown by teams of people. These are thought to repel malevolent spirits and allow the celebrants to commune with their deceased loved ones in peace. So this belief is similar to beliefs about kites and chi found in China, but seems to be founded in the beliefs surrounding Día de Muertos. In some families the kites are burned after the festival, while in others the kite or the frame is stored to be used again. The tradition of giant kites is thought to be only about one hundred years old, yet has developed into a beautiful and unique kite celebration in that time.
The ancient activity of flying kites continues to be an important cultural activity in many parts of the world, a tradition which changes and grows. Kites also develop technologically as new materials are tried. I have only been able to describe a few briefly here, and there is much more to say about customs, games, and beliefs involving kites, as well as their practical uses. If you would like to share your kite tradition, please do so in the comments. (But please do not include links advertising events or products as Library of Congress policy does not allow these.)
- See: Chadwick, Nora K. “The Kite: A Study in Polynesian Tradition,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 61 (Jul. – Dec., 1931), pp. 455-491. A thesis by Damion Sailors also includes a discussion of the origins and diffusion of kites in the Pacific with references: Ho’olele Lupe–An Analysis of the Ancient Practice of Hawaiian Kite-flying, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 2011.
- Chadwick discusses Maori traditions and sagas concerning kites: pp. 462-491.
- Westervelt, W. D. “Maui’s Kite Flying,” Legends of Maui, A Demi-God of Polynesia, 1910 (full text online at Sacred Texts).
- Edge-Partington, T. W. “Kite Fishing by the Salt-Water Natives of Mala or Malaita Island, British Solomon Islands,” Man, Vol. 12, 1912, pp. 9-11. Published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
- Allison Gramolini provides a good introduction to this topic with citations in “Polynesian Migration” 2011, available via Sea Semester, Environmental Studies at Woods Hole and at Sea.
- Needham, Joseph with the collaboration of Wan Ling, “Thaumaturgical Artisans” in Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4, part 2, pp. 573-576. Cambridge University Press, 1965.
- Chadwick (see note 1) discusses the widespread use of kites for reconnaissance in Polynesia and Asia, concluding that kites of China spread to Polynesia, a position many question today due to the apparent age of the Malaysian and Polynesian kite traditions. Also, Needham, Joseph with the collaboration of Wan Ling, “The Kite and its Origins” in Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4, part 2, pp. 576-578. Cambridge University Press, 1965, includes a discussion of the use of kites in reconnaissance in China. Chadwick (see note 1) discusses the widespread use of kites for reconnaissance in Polynesia and Asia.
- Modegi, Masaaki. The Making of Japanese Kites: Tradition, Beauty and Creation, p. 17.
- Petit-Senn, Jean. Bluettes et Boutades, 1846 (a book of epigrams).
- Ornelas, Christopher, et al. Wings of Resistance: The Giant Kites of Guatemala, Drachen Foundation, 2013.
99 Chinese Kites, exhibit, the University of Maine. 2013.
Culin, Stewart, “Hawaiian Games,” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Apr., 1899), pp. 201-247. This article includes discussion of kites, as well as drawings of kite types found at the time.
Edge-Partington, T. W. “Kite Fishing by the Salt-Water Natives of Mala or Malaita Island, British Solomon Islands,” Man, Vol. 12, 1912, pp. 9-11. Published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
Fishing Kite, Tench Island, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. A photograph of a fishing kite.
Newell, Jenny. The Maori ‘Birdman’ Kite at the British Museum, Pacific Arts, New Series, Vol. 1 (2006), pp. 36-43.
Rediscovering Cultural Treasures from the Pacific Islands, from the University of Rochester. Includes two photographs of fishing kites from Papua New Guinea.
Sailors, Damion. Ho’olele Lupe–An Analysis of the Ancient Practice of Hawaiian Kite-flying, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 2011 (thesis).
Westervelt, W. D. “Maui’s Kite Flying,” Legends of Maui, A Demi-God of Polynesia, 1910 (full text online at Sacred Texts).