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The Kite: soaring high in history

THERE ARE VERY FEW THINGS that fill the heart like the sight of a kite, tugging against its tether as it swoops and turns, brightly coloured against a brilliant blue sky. Almost every culture has its kite, mankind’s earliest experiences of flight dating back over 2000 years. Conceived in China, they have populated the world giving almost every country a source of fun, a tool for fishing or farming or even fighting and now, increasingly, the inspiration for a festival. Mankind has sent them up over the centuries in every shape or form for us on the ground to look up to as they enjoy the ultimate bird’s eye view.

The first kite was in the shape of an eagle, attributed to Mo Di (468-376 BC), a Chinese philosopher who took three years to fashion his design just to enjoy one short day of flight from his home on Mount Lu.  His student, Gongshu Ban, took up from there; this time in the shape of a magpie using bamboo and silk.  Legend says that he was able to sustain three continuous days of flight with his design, using the eddies and currents of air to remain aloft, just like the birds they are modeled on. Far from objects of fun, the early Chinese kites were put to use in war, sending messages, scattering propaganda and even hoisting soldiers into the air as snipers or spies. In one famous story, General Han Sin even brought down an enemy castle, using a kite to measure the width of the walls so that he could safely tunnel beneath them.

From there, kites were brought East by centuries of trade, becoming popular throughout Asia, and then eventually West by Marco Polo. Originally reserved for the aristocracy, they made their way down through the ranks, even facing a ban from the Edo Government of Japan as “too many people became unmindful of their work.” The sport of Kite fighting remains popular from India to the Middle East. Even so, kites have been in service for many years, helping farmers and fisherman and even scientists and surveyors.  The Micronesians have been using leaf kites for generations to bring bait far out into the ocean and tempt the gar-fish back into their nets. Benjamin Franklin used the kite to learn more about the wind and the weather and the Wright brothers experimented with kites before they took their first flight.

The kite landed in Malaysia around the 16th Century and the ‘Wau’ remains one of the many symbols of Malaysia today. These giant kites come in many shapes, from bulan (moon) to kucing (cat), and many make a distinctive sound when they chase through the air with the help of a hummer. The basis for the logo for the national carrier, the Wau now circulates the globe on the back of the jet engines of Malaysia Airlines. It seems like the kite is destined to fly forever.

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