China is viewed as one of two possible locations where kites originated thousands of years ago.
The artistry and structure of Chinese kites is unique in the world. Using materials native to China, the early kite crafters developed unique skills in shaving and shaping bamboo into diverse shapes and framing structures. The development of unique and strong papers for sails combined with specialized colored inks allowed images to be painted on the sails by Chinese artists and artisans. This combination of creatively shaped and strong kites created some of the most amazing tethered flying devices in the world.
One type of Chinese kite links many similar segments into a train-like configuration that, when completed and raised in flight, creates a striking kite composition where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its individual parts.
This genre of kite is known as a 'centipede' kite. Similar in some ways to a kite train, the centipede kite provides one striking difference when viewed in flight: -the total visual effect of its many parts combine to create a single, stunning image in the sky.
Two dramatic examples of this type of kite are the famous Chinese dragon kites and a recent iteration, the Great Wall of China kite.
Chinese Dragon Kite:
The Chinese dragon kite has a long history that is tied to the symbolic importance of the dragon in the cultural lore of the nation. The dragon has long been viewed as a potent symbol of auspicious power in Chinese art and folk tales. The dragon is deeply entwined in Chinese culture and its meanings are deep and varied depending on the geographical region and the era of Chinese history.
With its embodiment in literature and art, it was to be expected that symbolic representations of the dragon would take flight in Chinese skies. There seems to be no precise information to suggest a date that has been historically established to confirm when the first Chinese dragon kites took to the skies, or in which exact area of the country they were first created and flown.
However, the Chinese dragon kite is an arresting and striking visual display when it is launched at any modern kite festival. The color, intricate construction and repetition of the segments of its body undulating in the breeze as it lifts skyward from its imposing head to its far off tail are simply captivating.
This kite is known as a "centipede" type of kite in that the repeated segments that follow behind the dragon's head are all identical in size and shape and are linked to make the dragon's body form, much as a centipede has a distinct head followed by many similar segments to its body. As with the centipede, the dragon kite as a visual whole is much greater than the sum of its individual parts.
The Great Wall of China Kite:
A very recent kite that made the global news, is the kite that represents the Great Wall of China. Although not in the shape of the traditional Chinese dragon kite, this kite has all the characteristics of a 'centipede kite' form: multiple repeated segments that are attached to a lead section. When combined, all these elements provide a total, integrated kite image in the sky.
This kite was constructed during a three year period from 2006 to 2008. It was flown for the first time on June 22, 2008. The kite was crafted by Zhang Tianwei, a master in kite design. Composed of two parts, the kite had a portrait of Qin Shihuang leading the head position, followed by a more-than-100-meter micro great wall. The giant kite is 130 metres in length and 12 kilograms in weight.. Due to its heavy weight, the kite needs at least 10 people to fly it in winds of 12 to 20 kph.
Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of China who founded Qin Dynasty after conquering six other countries in the Warring States Period. He was also the man who conceived of and started the building of the Great Wall to fend off foreign invasions. Kite creator Tianwei felt that an image of the Great Wall could be recreated in a kite that would reach off into the distance and undulate in the breeze just as the physical Wall itself rambles over varying terrain in China.
Single Kite or Train of Kites?
The Chinese 'centipede' type of kite is considered to be one single kite, an amalgam of segments creating a single visual entity. The two kites described and shown above are perfect examples of this.
Typically a 'train' of kites embodies a linked line of kites that are the exactly the same which do not suggest one single visual concept theme.
An example of a kite train is shown to the right. The kite train genre features all kites, including the lead kite, made of the same design structure.
Although the visual effect in the sky is usually quite arresting, it is very different from the effect created by a 'centipede' type kite where the entire array of similar kite elements evokes a collective idea that is greater than that created by the string of kites in a typical kite train.
The train of kites shown flying above was designed and built by the author.
References and Citations:
1. Background information on dragons and their role in the culture of China is from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
2. Image of Chinese dragon kite, of centipede variety, is from The Dragon Cave web site.
Videos of Chinese Centipede (Dragon) Kites:
Since writing this article, I have had several requests for more information on kite trains and, in particular, the Chinese centipede/dragon type kites.
Two video resources that provide insight into these magnificent kites are provided here.
Making a kite of this type is very time consuming. They are among the most beautiful kites in the world. Their long history and link to the culture of China ensures that these kites attract much attention wherever they are flown.