At the end of March the southern Vietnamese beach town of Vung Tau will host an International Kite Flying Festival. Katherine Le looks into the history of kite-flying and its cultural significance throughout Asia.
While people have flown kites for at least 2,000 years, it’s hard to trace this activity’s origins. Made of paper, fabric and wood, no ancient kites remain. Researchers must depend on legends, illustrations and documents for evidence of kites’ history.
China, Malaysia and the Pacific Islands are all suggested as possible places of origin for kite-flying. South Sea islanders used kites to fish, attaching bait to the kite’s tail. This technique is used to this day in the Solomon Islands.
According to legends, kites were being flown in China as early as 1,000 BC. Documents describing kite flying date back to 200 BC, when a Han dynasty general used a kite to estimate the distance to an enemy fortress, then dug a tunnel and breached the fortress’ walls. Another Han general is said to have flown hundreds of simple bamboo kites above an enemy’s camp to create a flapping sound that sent the soldiers into a panic as they mistook the kites for evil spirits.
Other Chinese legends describe kites being used to carry fireworks that scared the enemy, while old Chinese and Japanese prints depict giant kites carrying spies and snipers aloft.
A Japanese legend tells how a thief named Kakinoki Kinsuke used a kite in an attempt to steal a golden dolphin statue from the roof of Nagoya Castle, only to be caught and boiled alive.
In many Asian countries kites have gained spiritual significance. The Polynesian god Rongo is both the patron saint of the arts and kite flying. New Zealand’s Maori people associated kites with birds, which were thought to carry messages to the gods. As well as being practiced at divination and at funerals, kite-flying was considered a sacred ritual, often accompanied by a turu manu chant like this one:
My bird, by power of charm ascending,
In the glance of an eye, like the sparrow hawk, By this charm shall my bird arise,
My bird bestride the heavens.
Beyond the swirling waters,
Like the stars Atutahi and Rehua,
and there spread out thy wings,
To the very clouds. Truly so.
In Korea, parents would release a kite after the birth of a male baby so that the kite could carry away any bad luck left over from the infant’s past lives. Thai farmers would fly kites at the start of the monsoon to beseech the gods to make the winds blow and prevent their fields from flooding. Also in Thailand, during the winter months imperial monks would fly kites devoted to the king and queen continuously so as to protect the monarchs from harm.
It’s believed that Buddhist monks brought kites to Japan from China between the sixth and eighth centuries. The Japanese took kiting to new heights, creating kites shaped like birds, fish and drag¬ons. For the next ten centuries the Japanese associated kites with religious worship. Kites were flown to pray for good harvests, to prevent illness and bad luck, and to congratulate new parents. Even today it’s customary for Japanese people to fly windsocks shaped like carps — a symbol of strength and resilience — on Children’s Day, which falls on May 5th.
Throughout Asia kites are flown at important festivals and celebra¬tions. In northern India, the spring festival of Makar Sankranti, which falls on January 15th, is devoted to kite fighting. Participants fly small, highly maneuverable kites and try to sever the strings of their opponents’ kites. The Indian cities of Vadodara, Surat and Ahmedabad are excellent places to experience the mid-January kite flying festival, as residents fly kites from dawn to dusk, accompanied by music.
The Vietnamese, meanwhile, have created kites that sound as inter¬esting as they look. Rather than have tails, these kites, called dieu sao, sport flutes of different sizes and materials that produce noises like birds, gongs, musical instruments or car horns. Villages in central and northern Vietnam regularly hold contests to create the prettiest and most musical dieu sao. Noise-making kites are found in other Asian countries too. In Bali, large bows are attached to kites to create a deep throbbing sound, while some Malaysian kites feature slit gourds that whistle.
Today, the Chinese city of Weifang promotes itself as “Kite Town”. Since 1984, the Weifang International Kite Festival has been held annually from April 20th to 25th, drawing hundreds of kite-flying teams from around the world and tens of thousands of spectators. Weifang is also home to the world’s largest kite museum, which cov¬ers an amazing 8,100 square meters.
Closer to home, on March 27th, 2009 a three-day International Kite Festival will be held in the beach town of Vung Tau, just a two-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. Kite-flying teams from seven countries are signed up to attend, and visitors can look forward to colorful contests, displays and exhibits about the history of kiting.