Imagine a kite whose parts move about while in the sky. Such kites exist in China. These mechanical kites are created by 81-year-old Zhang Tianwei, a famous artisan from Xi’an.
Zhang comes from a family of kite makers. Since he grew up in an environment where kites were always discussed, Zhang naturally leaned towards his family trade. As a kid, Zhang read about a moving kite consisting of two roosters, with the wind making it appear as if the creatures were fighting one another. Hooked on the idea, Zhang decided to build mechanical kites.
As he grew up, Zhang learned how to repair watches, modify mechanics in an electric application factory, create wooden models for machine tool parts, and so on. This gave him enough knowledge for making his childhood dream a reality. “Conceiving the structure and the gearing system is the first difficult step, and then making the parts takes much longer and patience… I always want to try new ideas in the next,” Zhang said to The Telegraph.
When creating a mechanical kite, Zhang first creates a mental imagery of its movements and then creates a blueprint. Typically, he draws a front and side view. Zhang uses an aluminum alloy for the gears to make the kites lighter. The connections, rods, and levers are made from bamboo. Finally, everything is brought together to complete the kite. A simple mechanical kite would occupy about one or two months of Zhang’s time. But a big kite can take almost one year to complete.
Zhang has made less than 50 kites over a period of three decades, with each kite different from the others. As to whether he has any secret techniques for making his fantastic mechanical kites, Zhang is open about sharing his knowledge. “There’s no secrets for doing it well. You need enough time to practice, and then you can solve most problems based on your experiences. This requires years of accumulation… If young people are keen on learning this skill, I’d like to share my lifelong experiences without any reservations,” he said in an interview with The Star Online.
China’s kite history
China has a long history in kite-making. They are believed to have been created during the Warring States Period (475 B.C. to 221 B.C.). Initially, kites were not toys for children to play with. Instead, they were mostly used by the military for intelligence and attack purposes.
“The first kites were what we today would call prototype kites: they were made of light wood and cloth. They were designed to mimic a bird’s natural flight. The first Chinese kites were used for measuring distances, which was useful information for moving large armies across difficult terrain. They were also used to calculate and record wind readings and provided a unique form of communication similar to ship flags at sea,” according to China Highlights.
Traditionally, there are three kite styles in China. The first, called mu yuan, are wooden kites shaped like birds. The second, called zhi yuan, are kites made from paper. These were usually used as an emergency warning tool. Finally, lighter kites made of silk made their appearances during the Tang Dynasty period (618 to 907).