Three generations of kite makers keep the skies colorful
Family Kites Flying High
By FENG JING
One of the works awarded the prestigious Mountain Flower Prize at the biennial China Folk Arts Fair is Kong Bingzhang’s kite entitled “Gold Monkey Offering Treasure.” The kites are known among kite fans in Beijing as Cao’s kites, developed by three generations of the Kongs—Kong Xiangze, Kong Lingmin and Kong Bingzhang.
The title of Cao’s kites stemmed from the surname of Cao Xueqin (1715-1763), a famous writer in the Qing Dynasty. All in China know Cao’s classic works—Dream of the Red Mansion. But few know that Cao also wrote a book on kites.
Kong Lingmin, father of Kong Bingzhang, told a story of how his father started manufacturing kites 60 years ago. In 1943, Kong Xiangze, grandfather of Kong Bingzhang, studied at a university, majoring in sculpture. While assisting a Japanese professor with his work, Kong found a book illustrating the professions for ordinary people to make a living. The book, in eight volumes, was written by Cao Xueqin. The second volume illustrates the technique of making kites and the method of flying kites, together with pictures.
But the book was bought for a large sum by the Japanese professor who cherished it and did not allow Kong Xiangze to take even a single photo of it. Kong was only permitted to copy the text and paintings by hand. Before he finished, the professor returned to Japan with the book. After that, Kong Xiangze never saw and even heard about that book again.
However, the book enlightened the Kong family on making kites, naming them Cao’s kites.
Cao’s kites have combined the merits of kites made in northern and southern China, said Kong Lingmin. As the climates in north and south China are different, the requirements in techniques also vary. The southern kites with soft wings suit the breeze in south China, but cannot stand strong wind in the north, while the northern kites have firm frames to bear strong wind, but can’t float in soft wind.
Complicated processes ensure the quality of Cao’s kites, which are exquisite in design, painting and manufacturing. Making the heads of human figures, birds and animals is the most complicated process, and the kites made with such superb skills are so lifelike that they look like real creatures flying in the sky.
Swallow-shaped kites represent the typical style of Cao’s kites. The different-sized kites symbolize different groups of people. Short and plump swallows symbolize children, large, fat ones represent man, slim ones mean women, and double swallows in one kite embody husband and wife enjoying a harmonious relationship. Even the painting on kites have special meanings. Namely, buds on both wings of a swallow symbolize honesty between husband and wife, and a white rim on each swallow’s head represents eternal love between a couple.
Although the Kong family had manufactured kites for generations, prior to the late 1970s, the family had never used the skill to earn a living. In the late 1970s, Kong Lingze, the father, who once worked as a farmer, a worker and a businessman, began to guide some township enterprises to make kites. Cao family’s kites were first displayed at the Beijing Flowers and Kites Fair held in 1980, attracting many visitors. Since then, the kites have been awarded prizes successively both at domestic and international contests and fairs.
Three years ago, Kong Bingzhang, son of Kong Lingmin, joined the family business after graduating from university. The family plans to send him to an art academy to further improve his skills.
Many kites made by the Kongs are collected by domestic and foreign museums. As all kites are hand made, customers have to order in advance and the price is high, with each costing more than 1,000 yuan ($120.77).
To promote kite art, the Kongs spent one year writing a book entitled Art of Cao Xueqin Kites, which came out last year. They have also exhibited their kites at various art fairs and lectured in middle and primary schools. Keeping in mind the original intention of Cao Xueqin of compiling a chapter on kite making in his book, they have passed the skill to many disabled people to help them make a living.