The Origin of Kites
Three of the most frequently asked questions about kites are:
- When was the kite invented?
- Who invented the kite?
- What was the original purpose of the kite?
Documented evidence on the origin of the kite is somewhat sparse and open to some different interpretations.
It is commonly accepted that the kite was invented in China. However, there is significant reason to believe that the kite may have developed in the Indonesian archipelago and the islands of the south seas around the same time that the kite was emerging in mainland China.
Historians and anthropologists have struggled to date the earliest emergence of the kite and to hypothesize on the source of the original idea for the "kite" as a tethered flying device.
Some of the most recent thinking for the origin of the 'notion' of the kite centres on two main ideas:
- The visual image of a leaf barely attached to a vine, tree, or object by a fine strand of vine, or perhaps even a strand of a spider's web. This is one of the concepts that may have created the notion of controlling the flight of a leaf or similar object on the end of a fine line;
- The visual image of a hat, item of clothing, or a wind sail loosely floating on the breeze tied to a fence post or mast could also have stirred the idea of flying an object at the end of a line.
These two notions are sometimes conceded by anthropologists and historians alike, who have bothered to take the time to speculate on the origins of the kite, as potential sources for the concept of the kite.
That these concepts could have emerged in isolation in more than one area of emerging civilization at somewhat similar periods in time is entirely possible.
Although there is documentary evidence for the early emergence of the kite in China, historical analysts concede that China may get the credit due to the fact that its history was well preserved in both written and artistic records.
Nevertheless, more recent studies into the anthropological roots of cultures in Malasia, Indonesia, the south sea islands (including Hawaii, Polynesia, New Zealand) suggest that the oral history of these areas point to the very early emergence of the kite, perhaps in eras around the same time as the development of the kite in China.
Early kites in all of these cultures (China, Indonesia, and the south sea islands) relied on the use of natural materials:
- Bamboo or similarly strong reed like branches for framing structure;
- Thin strands of vine or braided fibres for flying/tethering line;
- Leaves, braided reeds and similar fibrous sheets, or in the case of China - woven cloth and later paper, were commonly used for sail material.
Considering this anthropological evidence, more facts need to be determined before a precise date for the emergence and origin of the kite can be conclusively ascribed to one nation or geographic area.
Current records based on written history point to the famous Chinese philosopher Mo-tse (Mo Ti in some texts) (approx. 468-376 BC) as the first to build a kite. Living near Mt. Lu, in the area of Qingzhou, Shandong province (near present day Weifang China), Mo-tse carefully carved a bird (a 'sparrow hawk' or eagle) over a period of three years. Once satisfied that it was as much like a bird as he could make it, he flew it for only a single day. The exact details of its flight are not recorded, but there is conclusive, written reference to this event in Chinese history.
From this published date, we can safely conclude that the kite has a history of at least 2,300 years. The documentation of Mo-tse's flight in the Weifang area is therefore frequently cited as proof for the fact that the kite originated in China (*).
Kites are often thought of as 'toys'. However, it is important to note that the earliest uses of the kite were:
- Scientific: to emulate the flight of birds;
- Utilitarian: to carry fishing line and hook out over the water in atolls, thus providing a means of catching fish in somewhat remote water from where the fisherman stood;
- Military: to visually signal, scatter messages, measure distances, and as kite technology improved, to lift observers over military areas;
- Religious: to offer up wishes to the gods of weather and crop fertility at the time of spring planting or fall harvest; to appease the spirit world;
- Cultural: to demonstrate artistically the symbols of a region or nation in the sky.
The use of kites as toys actually came later in almost all cultures.
*. The historical record on the actual origin of kites is much discussed and even the precious few datable 'facts' are open to interpretation. As an example, some records state that the kite of Mo-tse was flown for one day; others state three days. Some reputable scholars, such as Berthold Laufer, dispute that Mo-tse even created and flew the bird like device. He also questions whether or not it was a 'kite' in the usual meaning of the word. Thus, getting a definitive answer on the origins of the kite is a challenging task. [Laufer: pp 23-25].
Sources and Citations:
Best, Elsdon. Games and Pastimes of the Maori. Wellington, NZ: A.R. Shearer, Government Printer. 1976. (First published 1925. Reprinted in 1976 without textual alteration.)
Hart, Clive. Kites: An Historical Survey. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers. 1967. Library of Congress Cat. Card No. 67-20415 ISBN: 0911858407
Hart, Clive. The Prehistory of Flight. University of California Press. 1985. ISBN: 0520052137
Laufer, Berthold. The Prehistory of Aviation. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History. Publication 253 - Anthropological Series, Vol. XVIII, No.1. 1928.
Pelham, David. Kites. (The Penguin Book of Kites). London: Penguin Publishing. 1976. ISBN: 0140041176
Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, Vol. 4, Part II, pages 568-599.
Webster, George. "The Invention of the Kite." The Kiteflier - Issue 98 (pp 9-14). 2004. The Kite Society of Great Britain.