The History of the Chinese Kite
The kite is widely recognized as having originated in China. For this reason, one can safely say that the origin of the Chinese kite is synonymous with the origin of the kite, period. The first kites were what we today would call prototype kites: they were made of light wood and formed in the shape of a bird. It was of course logical enough to attempt to mimic a creature designed by nature for flight, and, indeed, the first European attempts at constructing a "flying machine" involved strapping artificial "wings" onto a human's arms, though human arms proved to lack the strength necessary to flap wings large enough to support the weight of the human body.
The later development of the traditional kite as we know it today, i.e., a device with narrow ribs, or veins, made of light but strong, pliable material and with a thin material such as silk cloth stretched over the ribs, was surely inspired by observing the accidental flight of broad, thin objects such as leaves (which also have veins, between which are stretched the thin green photosynthetic material that absorbs sunlight and CO2, releasing oxygen), or broad, thin pieces of silk that were perhaps blown out of the carrier's grip – or even a hat – that ended up taking an involuntary flight for several meters if not hundreds of meters. Things rarely come to humankind via fiat; they instead have their origin in observed natural phenomena that is mimicked by man.
It requires, however, an advanced society in order to have the sufficient surplus so that some individuals in society may devote at least part of their time to such frivolity as playing around with flying objects. And ancient China did indeed have a well-developed social structure that fostered a division of labor that would not only produce famous inventions and memorable literature, but would make possible the pursuit of flight in the form of the humble kite. The Early History of the Kite
The earliest kites, which date from the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, were made of wood, and were called mu yuan (wooden kite). Mention of this prototype kite – the "wooden bird" referred to above – stems from an ancient Mozi text (Mozi (BCE 470-391 circa) was a philosopher who lived a century later than Confucius (BCE 551-479) and who opposed the teachings of both Confucianism and Taoism/Daoism... Mohism, or the teaching of Mozi, seems to have been a belief system before its time, for it strikes one as being a thoroughly modern philosophy today) that was documented by another Chinese philosopher – and man of many parts – who was also a contemporary of Mozi, Lu Ban.
Another source indicates that a paper kite, the zhi yuan, was used as an emergency warning device a millenium later, when the kite was flown in order to appeal for help when the city-state of Nanjing was under seige by Hou Jing (CE ???-552), a Northern and Southern (CE 386-588) Dynasties general who served the Northern Wei (CE 386-533), the Eastern Wei (CE 534-549) and the Liang (CE 502-556) Dynasties, and who was mostly renowned for his exceeding cruelty (he was eventually murdered by his own men during a retreat, who perhaps performed the deed in the hope of being shown leniency by the pursuing enemy).
It was not until the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty that lighter kites made of first silk and then paper (bamboo was a common material used for the ribs) made their appearance. It was at this time that the kite came to transcend its humble military, or functional, origins, becoming a toy, or an instrument of pleasure. It was not long before artisans began to compete in creating the most artistic, the most acrobatic, etc., kites. During the Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties, kite making and flying had become an art form, being the object of elaborate and colorful decorations in the form of birds, flowers, blossoms, and of course, calligraphic characters. The Chinese kite, not unlike the case of the Chinese lantern and the Chinese umbrella, became a vehicle of artistic expression – oftentimes with literary overtones. Kite Construction
Kite construction consists of three parts: framing, or the preparation and binding together of the bamboo ribs that will constitute the kite's frame, gluing and decoration. Regarding framing, sometimes movement is incorporated into a kite by means of a hinged arrangement of sections of the frame, suggesting wing or tail movement, etc. As indicated, thin strips of bamboo are generally used for the ribs, as these are both light, exceptionally strong, and pliable. Many frame shapes are popular, including traditional representations of birds, butterflies and dragonflies, as well as non-winged insects such as centipedes or mythical animals like dragons, though modern kite artisans go beyond the traditional, producing kites that conform only to the creator's imagination. However, symmetry is key, otherwise the kite will not fly well.
Both silk and paper are used for the kite's "sail" material. Silk is very beautiful but also more expensive and more fragile. Paper sail material is both cheaper and more practical to work with, and it lends itself admirably to decoration. The paper type used for kites is very thin but fibrous, which both reduces weight and ensures strength. It is often treated with a with a thin layer of glutinous tung oil (aka Chinawood oil, which stems from the euphorbiaceous tree, Aleurites fordii, found throughout central Asia). Once the kite's sail material is glued to the bamboo frame, the kite is then decorated. This might take the form of painting representational images, geometric figures or even calligraphic characters. In addition, tassels and sometimes hollow reeds are attached to the kite in order to give it movement or produce sound.
Overall kite construction types can be divided into two categories: rigid (thicker, less pliant ribs) and soft. The former makes for a kite that can fly as high as the eye can see, while the latter makes for a kite that, though it may not attain great heights, is capable of delicate, fluttering movements. The Weifang Kite Tradition
The city of Weifang, Shandong Peninsula, has a special relationship to the kite. The city is namely home to the International Kite Association, and holds the Weifang International Kite Festival from April 20th to the 25th each year. Kite enthusiasts in the thousands, and from the four corners of the globe, descend upon the city of Weifang at this time each year to participate in the kite competitions, or to just watch this majestic and colorful spectacle. The climax of the festival is the crowning of the annual "Kite King". Weifang quite naturally also has a museum dedicated to the history of the kite.
It was in the city of Weifang that Marco Polo, in 1282, supposedly witnessed the flying of a manned kite. According to Marco Polo's travel diary, there existed a tradition in Weihai at the time for testing the wind with a kite in order to determine if an imminent voyage would be a good one or not. This was done by binding a sailor to a large kite from the stern of a ship that was freely anchored, such that the ship "rode with the wind", then casting kite and sailor off the ship's stern and into the breeze. If the kite and its passenger flew high and straight, it was a sign that the voyage would be a good one, otherwise not.
When he returned to Italy, Marco Polo brought with him a Chinese kite, and soon, thanks to the Silk Road, the Chinese kite became known throughout Europe, and from Europe, it would of course travel to the New World, the Americas. In the History of Flight pavilion at the National Aeronautics and Space Museum in Washington D.C. hangs a plaque on which is inscribed the following homage to the humble Chinese kite: "The earliest aircraft made by man were the kites and missiles of ancient China."