For one craftsman, it's not just a matter of flying a kite
Some of Liu Bin's kites may never reach the sky but that is because his creations are more works of art than whimsical playthings. The artisan, 28, talks to Zhuang Pinghui about why his kites, which sell for up to 100,000 yuan, are flying out his sho
How did you get involved in kites?
Making kites is a family thing. It started with my great-grandfather who was a cook but made kites in his spare time for extra money, and he made a business out of it after he retired. He made his fame in 1984 when he flew a 135-metre dragon kite he had made. Before that, people thought it was impossible for one person to fly such a long kite. The skill was passed on to my father, who used to be a carpenter and knew everything about making kite frames. I started making kites when I was a teenager and have been doing it ever since.
You studied fine arts at college. How did you end up doing this?
I had been teaching calligraphy, seal sculpture and tai chi to a group of foreigners when the Sars epidemic hit. Nobody came to the classes and I had to make a living. It suddenly occurred to me that I could turn my hobby into a livelihood. After twice changing location, I finally opened a shop in Houhai in Beijing.
Do you know any other professional kite makers?
No, it's just only me. It's a lonely job. My normal working day starts at nine when I sit myself in a quiet corner and work on the bamboo strips. By the time I look up, it's usually noon. When I look up again; it's usually dark already.
A 10-yuan kite can fly perfectly. Why are your kites so expensive?
You say it's expensive because you don't know about making kites. Look at the frame. These days, no one takes the time to make such an intricate bamboo frame as I do. Too often, you see a bamboo strip has been split to join it to another. Frames like that get loose very quickly. But I will pare the strip and heat it so that it gets thin gradually and curves naturally. The joints are glued and wrapped in a thin cord. Frames made this way are very strong. Amateur kite flyers tend to think a kite is a good one as long as it can fly, but to a professional that is merely a basic requirement. The kite has to fly upright the moment it meets the wind and the string should maintain an angle of 87 degrees to the ground. I can also make a 10-yuan kite, but I don't want to waste my time on rubbish.
How long does it take for one kite? From one week to three months, depending on the complexity of the kite. First, I need to cut strips of bamboo, which have been stored for 18 months to dry out. Then I will make the frame. For a swallow kite, the commonest type in Beijing, I will spend three days to one week making the frame. Then I dye and paint the silk and glue it to the frame. Now do you still think it is expensive to buy one week's work for just 320 yuan? For a Chinese character kite, like the 'double happiness' one, the frame itself took me a month.
What's the most expensive kite you've made?
I made a kite with a dragon's head for a German client. It took me three months, working eight hours a day to finish it. It's 1.8 metres high and 1.5 metres wide, three-dimensional, very complicated. I charged 100,000 yuan. But I know the client sold the kite in an exhibition.
How is business?
It's OK. People think I make a lot of money because my kites are two or three times more expensive than the others, but you won't believe how little money I make. Most of the money goes into rent and raw materials. I just earn a little something for my labour.
Who are your customers?
Most of my clients are foreigners and occasionally I have Chinese customers who buy the kites as a gift or souvenir for their clients. I have received several thousand yuan in such orders since the Lunar New Year.
Do you feel bad that many of your kites are destined for the wall?
Few people would fly an expensive kite, but I don't feel bad at all. Who said kites had to be flown? It's OK as long as the buyers appreciate the kite. I explain to every buyer what the kite stands for.
For example, a bat means happiness; a peach means longevity; and a lily means harmony in folk customs. I make sure they understand the meaning behind each colour and pattern. It's more than just a kite.