In Japan, they call people tako kichi, or ‘kite crazy’. In Holland, they’re vlieger gek. But in China, there’s no such thing as being too obsessed with flying kites, which were invented there 2,500 years ago.
According to legend, a Chinese philosopher named Mozi spent years carving a wooden bird in the shape of an eagle, which he was eventually able to keep airborne for an entire day, tethered by some primitive rope. Then he passed on his skills to a pupil named Lu Ban, and the student came up with the clever idea of using bamboo instead, because it was so much lighter, and this 2.0 version flew for three whole days.
Not to undermine Mozi, but there is another Chinese tale that claims the kite might have been invented after a farmer’s straw hat was blown off his head and went soaring into the air, with the chin straps trailing behind. While not nearly as impressive, it’s probably true too.
Farmer or philosopher, by the time paper was invented during the Han dynasty, kite flying was trending all over China. From Weifang in the Shandong province (where Mozi started making his wooden versions) to the rest of the Middle Kingdom, you couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking if you wanted to have a go of their new zhiyuan, or ‘paper kite’.
Quickly becoming more than toys, kites were employed as weather vanes, indicating the direction of the wind, and military tools: generals used them to fly messages over fortress walls and calculate distances to enemy lines.
Spreading from China to Korea and India and along historic trade routes, kite flying was an instant hit throughout Asia. Buddhist monks introduced kites to Japan: they used them as talismans to ward away evil spirits and deliver rich harvests. Kites became so popular with the Japanese common class that the Edo government tried and failed to discourage the pastime because “too many people became unmindful of their work”.
Over in India, the humble kite evolved into the patang, or ‘fighter kite’, which is basically the same traditional little shape, but the string is coated in rice glue and crushed glass so it can cut down an opponent’s kite. Thousands of locals still battle it out at big kite festivals today: Vishal Sen is the latest champion to beat over 1,100 contestants and be crowned ‘the best kite fighter in India’.
The Romans used windsocks as military banners, but proper kites were late to arrive in Europe. Marco Polo was the first to bring back stories about them, and eventually other sailors started bringing the real things home.
Spreading throughout the West, kites remained nothing more than playthings for the next few centuries—until 1752, when Benjamin Franklin turned one into a scientific instrument. He flew a kite into a storm and proved that lightning was caused by electricity. The Wright brothers soon followed, using kites while researching and designing the first aeroplane in the late 1800s. In fact, without kites, we wouldn’t have modern meteorology, aeronautics or wireless communication.
Today, kites have done a full loop-the-loop and are back being flown mostly for fun. New materials like nylon, fibreglass and carbon graphite have made them stronger and lighter, while the dual-line stunt kite (invented in ’72) introduced the ability to pull off crazy manoeuvres and intricate tricks.
If you’re the competitive type, you can enter the World Sport Kite Championships, held in France. An international board of judges will score you in the disciplines of precision and kite ballet.
More of a traditionalist? Then the Weifang International Kite Festival in China is probably more your vibe. It’s held every year, and tens of thousands of spectators turn out to watch dozens of high-flying performances across three days. The birthplace of Mozi and the first kite, Weifang is also home to the world’s largest kite museum: it holds more than 2,000 examples from around the world. The museum’s director explains the enduring attraction of the kite perfectly when he wrote, “The silver string links the world. The kite spreads friendship.”
What you need:
- dowel (we used 7mm diameter) cut into 60cm and 45 cm lengths – the dimensions can be changed – this is a smaller size suitable for smaller kids.
- lightweight fabric, cut into a piece at least 75 cm x 55 cm (you can also use paper – newspaper weight is good!)
- hand saw
- embroidery thread
- fishing wire or lightweight string on a reel
- wood glue or hot glue gun, optional
- glue for fabric
- ribbon or bind for tail
- felt for face
- scraps of fabric for bow on tail
- Cut small notches in each end of the dowel pieces. Try and get the notches in the same position on each piece of dowel.
- Place the smaller piece of the dowel at the right angle one-third of the way down the bigger piece of the dowel. Glue together (with hot glue gun or wood glue) and secure in place with string.
- Run the embroidery thread through the top notch of the longest dowel, securing it with a knot at the top (you can also hold it in place temporarily with tape if that helps!). Run the thread around the outside of the kit frame twice making sure it is tight and in the notches. Tie the thread in place once complete and trim.
- Place the fabric under the frame and cut it to the frame size, leaving a few centimetres to fold over.
- Fold the edges over and glue in place. Leave to dry.
- Tie a separate piece of string from one end to the other of the shorter piece of the dowel. This will be where your kite string is attached.
- Cut the face out of the felt and glue to the front.
- Cut the fabric scraps to even rectangles and tie the tail ribbon around the centre of each one to create bows.
- Attach the tail to the bottom on the kite.
- Attach the lightweight strong or fishing wire to the middle string. Your kite is ready to fly! ///
Looking for more DIY goodness? Check out how to make your own pasta from scratch or make some toys from trash!