High-flying master soars above his rivals

Wu Huixin
When Chen Disheng started making kites, he never thought of being named as an inheritor of intangible cultural heritage. 
Wu Huixin

Look up into the sky over almost any Chinese city on a weekend or holiday when pleasant sunshine and mild breezes lure people out to the parks and squares, and you are almost sure to see a kite, perhaps hundreds. The sky may be filled with brightly colored, fluttering fabric; or there could be just one distant dot, floating almost unimaginably high in the big blue. This skyscape has changed little over thousands of years.

Nearer to the ground, closer examination of these kites will yield, in the main, mass-produced items made of synthetic fiber with little intrinsic appeal or artistic value. Handmade kites, especially those with refined paintings and complex structures, are seemingly lost to history.

High-flying master soars above his rivals
Wu Huixin

Chen Disheng works on the frame of a dragon head.

High-flying master soars above his rivals
Wu Huixin

This dragon string kite is made to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

In Zhejiang Province, however, a couple of craftsmen still adhere to the traditional values of times gone by. Chen Disheng is one of them. Last week, Shanghai Daily visited his studio in Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Museum and found the 77-year-old master hard at work. A craftsman of superlative skill, Chen is also a storehouse of folklore and keeper of centuries of tales of kite-flying.

Today, these handmade versions have become more like works of art than toys, decorative items more likely to be found hanging on a wall than flying high over the city on a Sunday. Chen’s kites cost an absolute minimum of 1,000 yuan (US$150) and are usually purchased by tourists.

His kites are made with traditional motifs, frequently mythical animals like the dragon and phoenix. They mostly resemble soaring creatures with wings wide spread. Other popular designs include tigers, butterflies, dragonflies and swallows.

Though kite styles vary in other Asian and Western countries, in China wing kites, panel kites and string kites still prevail. String kites generally consist of many small kites on the same line that can extend for many meters.

Chen spent the whole 2009 making a 200-meter dragon kite to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. As a typical dragon string kite, it features a huge but very light head, trailing hundreds of small round kites which symbolize the dragon’s scales.

“I flew this kite twice. It requires 20 or 30 people to assist during takeoff. Though it weighs many kilograms, it can be flown in a moderate breeze,” Chen told Shanghai Daily.

Today, the kite is on display in his studio and is a favorite with visitors.

When Chen started to make kites more than 30 years ago, the idea he might one day be named an inheritor of Hangzhou’s intangible cultural heritage never crossed his mind. At the time, he was working in a state-owned enterprise, but was already an aficionado of handmade kites.

After winning a prize in a crafts competition, he devoted all of his spare time to making kites.

“I was smug,” he recalled. “I thought I already knew all there was to know about kite-making, and thought my skills were fully mature.”

Then he met Mu Jiabao, a colossus among kite-makers. “When he saw my work, he criticized my kites mercilessly. That disillusioned me.”

Mu may have criticized his work, but he recognized Chen’s talent and dedication and took him to visit craftsmen across Zhejiang and other provinces, broadening his horizons and letting him see for himself the gap between top-flight craftsmen and amateurs. Suitably chastened, Chen started all over again and worked much harder on his techniques.

In 1987, under Mu’s guidance, Chen took part in a nationwide competition in Weifang, Shandong Province — the kite capital of the world. He came fifth.

“That small success fired me up. My work unit also encouraged me to become even more active in kite-making. The more I practiced, the better I got,” Chen said.

In China, flying kite is a competitive business and under the management of the State General Administration of Sports. Every year, many provinces and the central government host competitions.

The angle between the string and ground is key to winning the competitions. If the angle is less than 45 degrees, it usually means the kite is not very good. A well-designed kite can often be flown above 60 degrees.

“I once flew above 85 degrees because of a sudden updraft. That situation would be difficult to encounter again. Flying a kite requires favorable weather and the right geography,” Chen added. “A kite that flies smoothly in southern China may barely get off the ground in northern regions due to different wind qualities.

“Flying high is the standard by which a kite should be judged. A page of a newspaper could be a kite if it flew into the sky. A kite is not a real kite if it cannot fly high,” Chen said.

High-flying master soars above his rivals
Wu Huixin

A cicadas-shaped kite

Kite-flying in China dates back more than 2,000 years. In the early days, they were used for measuring distance, gauging wind, lifting people, communication and military operations.

Competitions have breathed new life into the tradition. Today, the annual China Traditional Kite-making Skills Competition is the pinnacle of kite-making glory.

Participants bring their own raw materials and tools. They are given three days to make a kite on site, from scratch. The site is under constant surveillance via CCTV to ensure fairness. Chen has won the gold medal twice.

“The bamboo framework is a matter of careful calculation. It must be designed to stay strong in the wind, but at the same time, it must be light,” Chen said. “The best material is the local bamboo from Zhejiang. Every piece has to be seasoned for years if you want a consistent performance,” Chen told Shanghai Daily.

Chen is often invited to give classes to children, but rather than teaching them how to make kites, the kite-making master prefers telling stories.

“Everyone knows what a kite looks like, but only a few know what kites really are. Hangzhou’s kite tradition dates back to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) when it was made the capital.

“I hope more and more people learn not just how to fly a kite, but the wonderful history of kite-flying,” he said.

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