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A Brief History Of Kites. Part 1

When we turn to the purposes for which kites were used in those far-off days, much that is of interest may be noted. Ancient Chinese historians have recorded that they were employed to carry ropes across rivers and gorges. The ropes were made fast, and wooden bridges suspended from them. It is said that a general of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 221) put the enemy to flight by flying musical kites over their camp at night. The enemy fled, because they believed that the music was the voices of their guardian angels, warning them of coming danger. There is a tradition, too, that man-lifting kites were used in attacks on cities, and to drop men behind enemy lines. It is difficult to say when this strategy was first employed, so no date can be given. It is known, however, that the Chinese and the Japanese used man-lifting kites to survey the enemy's position as early as the seventeenth century A.D.

We now consider kite flying as a national pastime in China. By the early centuries A.D. kites were being made in a great variety of shapes, representing, for example, men, birds, animals and monsters. There were kites which carried lanterns, strings, pipes and small windmills. (In the latter perhaps there is the germ of an idea for an aircraft propeller.) Again, some were adapted for the sport of kite-fighting. The upper parts of the control lines were coated with glue and ground glass. It was the aim of a competitor to cut his opponent's line and bring his kite down. Scenes which presented a variety of colour, form, and movement were displayed through the centuries. One author, some years ago, described such a scene, wherein the sky would be full of all sorts of kites, which were being flown by old and young alike. A personal recollection of this fondness for kite flying may not be out of place here. Not so long ago, the writer saw two elderly Chinese, skilfully flying their kites in the grounds of a certain hospital, while other patients who were fit enough, were playing cricket, or otherwise passing the time. (An illustration of Chinese flying kites will be seen in Plate V.)

Chinese man and child flying kites

Chinese man and child flying kites

There is a tradition that kites were known in Ancient Greece and Rome. One should not be too dogmatic on this point. On the other hand, taking fourth century China as the starting point, one may confidently trace the spread of kite flying all over Asia and beyond, extending to such countries as New Zealand. The Maoris are said to have fastened perforated reeds to their kites. It was believed that the sounds which they made would scare off evil spirits. Kite flying was established in Europe by the fifteenth century. It may well have been known for some time before this, possibly being introduced by voyagers to the east. Marco Polo, the traveller from Venice, arrived in China at the close of the thirteenth century. He stayed there for seventeen years. During this time he became a member of the Emperor's staff and moved freely about the country. When he returned to Venice with a valuable collection of things, people would not believe the stories he told. One is tempted to think that a kite found a place among the things which he brought back. At any rate, as he talked of the people and places he had seen, it is possible that he did mention their fondness for kite flying. In the search for the origin of the kite in Europe, there must also be borne in mind the possibility that they were brought in as occasional novelties by traders with the east.

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