Rare exhibition dedicated to the intricate ancient art of keeping cool

Around 180 oval fans are on display in China Fan Museum. Some of the exhibits are rarely shown in public, so this is a chance lovers of ancient art cannot afford to miss.

An exhibition celebrating the ancient art of fan making must not be missed. In ancient times fans were used as a ritual accessory. They were associated with politics and those who owned one had social status. Chinese nobility were often seen holding, waving or gesturing with delicate fans, even when the weather was not hot.

According to historical archives, oval fans dominated society before the Song Dynasty (960-1279). They were made of bamboo strips and covered with silk. Ink paintings and poems were painted on the surface, making them popular with noble ladies.

When Hangzhou was made the capital during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), the city had thousands of fan makers. Artists, artisans, craftsmen and workers who supplied noble families poured into the city. Streets were dotted with shops selling fans.

One of the highlights comes from Emperor Songhui in Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).

Varieties were enriched in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as foldable and feather fans came into being. As a consequence, oval fans declined as fewer and fewer people used them.

When Ruan Yuan (1764-1849) was the governor in Zhejiang Province, he revived the oval fan craftsmanship in Hangzhou, which made the old handicrafts flourish again.

Now, around 180 oval fans are on display in China Fan Museum in Hangzhou through November 26. Some of the exhibits are rarely shown in public, so this is a chance lovers of ancient art cannot afford to miss.

In ancient time, ink wash painting on a fan was a unique art variety in China. It differentiated from other traditional painting types, thanks to small sizes, special shapes and materials. Therefore, paintings account for a major part of the exhibition.

One of the highlights comes from Emperor Songhui (1082-1135) in Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Despite his incompetence as a ruler, he was known for talent in poetry, painting, calligraphy and music. Some of his works are listed as national treasures and collected in The Palace Museum in Beijing.

The painting portrays a butterfly flying onto a fruitful loquat branch, while a bird stands on it. He used light ink to vividly depict two animals’ expression and position. The loquat fruits look plump and succulent. In the hand of the emperor, a single stroke produced astonishing variations in tonality, from deep black to silvery gray.

On the opposite side is the calligraphy work of Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). He received the fan and wrote a poem on it, which praised the Emperor Songhui’s artistic achievements and criticized his incompetence in politics.

This oval fan is considered the epitome of the top level of Song Dynasty ink wash painting and it is a testament to the vibrant art of that dynasty. Under the ruler’s influence, oval fans thrived and reached at the peak time.

This fan portrays spring landscape at West Lake as willows swing by the lakeside and a boat cruises on the water.

Painting skill

Another highlight also comes from The Palace Museum. Though painter’s name is unknown, his, or her, superb skill is reflected by delicate strokes, smooth lines and designed layout. 

It portrays a spring landscape on West Lake, as willows swing by the lakeside and a boat cruises on the water. Lush vegetation covers traditional houses and remote hills are obscured by mist. It provides historians with a precious archive to study the changes of the lake.

In history, two Hangzhou local painters, Ma Yuan and Xia Gui, were famous for painting silk fans. Their works feature a few strokes and leave a lot of blank space, presenting a simple, plain style and a poetic vibe.

In addition to paintings, the exhibition also introduces the making process and materials of oval fans.

It takes more than 20 steps to complete an intact fan. Along with the history, the oval shape was changed into plum blossom, melon and polygon shapes while the rim was gradually decorated with embroidery and gilded ornaments.

Bamboo was the main material to make handles and ribs. To cater for the upper class, pricey materials including: Jade, ivory, animal bones and horns were also applied to produce luxury fans.

As the exhibition showcases, many late Qing Dynasty fans were made of ivory, which were engraved with patterns including auspicious motifs and figures. Sometimes the handle was coated with layers of lacquer and then carved with ornate floral patterns.

Usually, a small hole was drilled at the end of handle in order to hang an ornamental pendant. 

It was not necessary, but a beautified fan to a greater degree. The common materials of a pendant contained gold, silver, jade, crystal, ivory, coral and amber.

An oval fan was generally covered with three layers of materials, two layers of silk and a layer of rice paper in between. The paper was to make the fan more steady and prohibited ink penetrating into the opposite layer of silk. 

According to different weaving methods, silk could be divided into varied types. Sha and luo were considered the best materials for oval fans because of lightness and durability.

Date: Through November 26, closed on Mondays

Venue: China Fan Museum

Address: 450 Xiaohe Rd

Admission: Free

Xia Gui’s painting features a few strokes and leaves much blank space.

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