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  History of Chinese Invention and Discovery

History of Chinese Invention -  the Kite

Woodblock print of kite Kites may date back as far as 3000 years, where they were made from bamboo and silk in China. Exactly how or when a kite was first flown is a mystery, but one legend suggests that when a Chinese farmer tied a string to his hat to keep it from blowing away in a strong wind, the first kite was born. Another theory suggests that to make a high official's banner more visible, it was strengthened with a bamboo frame and flown. Or it may have been inspired by observing the wind-filled sails of fishing boats (the sail has been used in China for 3000 years). Perhaps the earliest kites consisted of a huge leaf attached to a long string (there is a type of Asian leaf that is ideal as a kite).

Children of course delighted in playing with kites, but ancient woodblock prints illustrate its dual nature as a toy and utilitarian device. Kites for work or play were made from wood, bamboo, paper, or silk. The earliest written account of kite flying was about 200 B.C. when the Chinese General Han Hsin of the Han Dynasty flew a kite over the walls of a city he was attacking to measure how far his army would have to tunnel to reach past the defenses.In the fifth century B.C., kitemaker Kungshu P'an made bird shaped kites which could fly for up to three days. In 478 B.C. a Chinese Philosopher, Mo Zi, spent three years making a hawk from light wood or bamboo which sailed with the wind.

Chinese kite flying Kites used in 1232 A.D. flew messages over Mongol lines. Large kites were used to carry warriors armed with bows and arrows that would fire down on the enemy. In the 13th century Marco Polo wrote about how the shipping merchants tied some protesting sailor to a huge kite and launched the kite with the wind before the ship set sail. If the kite went high and straight it meant a quick and prosperous voyage but if it crashed or did not fly well it was a bad omen.

British Library, 
Fire Drake Kite Kites fitted with hooks and bait were used for fishing, and kites with strings and whistles made musical sounds while flying. The Chinese built many colorful kites for fun and they were widely used in religious ceremonies. More sophisticated kites were used to test weather conditions. As a forerunner to balloons and gliders they were important to the advancement of controlled flight.

In the late 1500s, the kite was introduced to Europe by way of the Italians. Kite flying was first mentioned in England in a popular book of marvels and tricks in 1589. A book by John Bate's, The Mysteryes of Art and Nature in the British Library collection, dated 1635 shows a kite being used as a Fire Drake (a fire drake in Germanic mythology is a fiery dragon and drachen is German for kite).


The Genius of China
3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention
written by Robert K.G. Temple and published by Simon and Schuster, 1986
Currently out-of-print

Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2004

Oracle Bones, Stars, and Wheelbarrows
Ancient Chinese Science and Technology
Frank Ross, Jr.
Houghton Miffin Company, New York, 1982


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