Home People Traditions Mysterious and Multi-Faceted Chinese Fans

Mysterious and Multi-Faceted Chinese Fans

 Fans – one just can’t imagine a world without these beautiful objects. It would be like living in a world without birds. In fact, the traditional symbol for a fan in Chinese looks like, and means, “a bird’s wing,” and the newer word shan describes it as “feathers under a roof.” The ancients are believed to have kept birds in cages because the flapping of their wings created a pleasant breeze.

A fan can even be a simple green leaf

Hand fans are thought to have existed since prehistoric times. The fan can also be crafted from different kinds of materials like bone or bamboo and adorned with silk and feathers. You’d normally think that only ladies carried fans, but in ancient China, both sexes used to carry them, and it was used to symbolize the status and power of the user.

The original Chinese fan, the circular fan, is said to have been modeled after the full moon and signifies union and happiness. In Chinese culture, the fan was used to shade one’s face when passing dignitaries. In China today, the screen fan still continues to be used throughout society.

What does a fan do?

The simple answer is that it is used to create wind. For one, it cools you down when you are feeling hot. You can also fan a fire to make it even burn hotter. You can use the wind to push things or use them to disperse toxic fumes or smoke.

In ancient myths and legends, a fan is also a magical tool. In Journey to the West, which is regarded as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, a magic fan was given to the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, who at once proceeded to test its powers. It’s said that when he waved it, the fires on Flaming Mountain died out. When he waved it a second time, a gentle breeze sprang up. When he waved it a third time, refreshing rain fell everywhere, and the pilgrims proceeded on their way in comfort.

Huang Jingzhou as the Monkey King Sun Wukong. (Image: Shen Yun Performing Arts)

Fans in art and poetry

Back when the artistic fan was invented, around the 2nd century B.C, watercolor paintings of lotus blossoms, birds, and landscapes were painted on paper fans. Calligraphy on fans was first recorded in the story of Wang Xizhi, a very famous calligraphist in China. The poetic fan was also prevalent in those times. Apparently, the poets, upon receiving a sudden inspiration, would inscribe their verses on fans. They often carried many blank fans with them on their wanderings. When reciting a poem, a Chinese scholar could typically be seen swaying and waving his fan for the love of poetic pulchritude.

Martial arts fans

Around the 16th century, the fan was adapted as a weapon. It had razor-sharp blades on each end of the spokes that were made of steel or iron. The Kung Fu fans were firm and durable when closed and lethally sharp and deadly when open. The beauty of the Kung Fu fan was that it was easy to carry and conceal. When opening the fan, the sound distracted the opponent as well as serving to obscure their vision. In the opened position, the pointy ends were used for slicing or stabbing in a forward thrust. In the closed position, it was used as a solid club for striking and blocking. Mainly used in close range hand-to-hand combat, the smaller fans could also be used as projectiles causing considerable damage upon impact. A versatile weapon, small knives or poison darts could also be hidden within the fan’s individual blades.

The humble fan, it seems, served many a purpose in ancient China. They were customarily given as parting gifts between friends or lovers and even exchanged between enemies as well.

‘Fans’ of Shen Yun

Fans are also used in Chinese folk dancing and performing arts. The style is creatively known as Fan Dancing. Dancers combine synchronized movements and traditional forms with feathered fans to create a beautiful performance. The famous classical dance group Shen Yun from New York uses fans in almost all of their shows. They incorporate a variety of fans from the elegant elliptical fans of Manchurian women to the vibrant yellow pairs that unite to form chrysanthemum orbs. The flowing fans used in the dance of the water nymphs and the royal fans accompanying the Emperor is a favorite feature. Shen Yun highlights 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture in its purest form.

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  • Simone Jonker worked in NTD Inspired for two years. She wrote light articles and inspiring stories.

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