Third-generation kite maker keeps old craft alive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 December, 2009, 12:00am

Liu Bin runs Three Stone Kite, a family workshop in Beijing that makes kites the old-fashioned way. He laments the decline of the tradition since the glory days of the Qing dynasty and the lack of appreciation for the craft today.

How do you make a kite?

Making a kite involves more than 200 steps, and each requires concentration of the mind. First, you pick a stick of bamboo and examine it for tiny defects. Use a fine knife, and keep prying the bamboo open until you get enough long and narrow strips. Each must be straight and even, as they will make the frame. To make the frame curve, you have to heat it with a candle. When the frame is ready, you sketch, paint, dye and cut a piece of silk, and stick it to the frame. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Sometimes it takes me more than a month.

How did your family come into this trade?

My great-grandfather made kites for fun, then he realised he could sell them for a good price. In the Qing dynasty, a kite cost what an ordinary person could earn in half a year, so his biggest customers were elite families. According to my grandfather, my great-grandfather spent most of his life improving the quality of the craft. He experimented with all different types of bamboo and decided a species found only in Jiangxi was the best for the frame. He also tested various types of silk, which is a much better material than paper because it is lighter, more durable and allows winds to pass through more smoothly. After much searching, he eventually found a silk he liked in Jiangsu that is fine and sturdy. We are beneficiaries of his hard work and genius. We are using the same materials and technique that he developed in the late Qing dynasty.

Has the business prospered since then?

Actually, it declined. When the Qing dynasty collapsed, the aristocrats lost their fortunes and my grandfather switched to the silk industry to make a living. Kites remained popular, so he earned a little extra money making kites for Beijing celebrities like cross-talk star Hou Baolin . They had the money and the time, and most importantly, the ability to appreciate its beauty and understand the traditional cultural symbols in the design. My grandfather became an employee of a state-owned department store after the founding of the People's Republic and retired in the early 1980s. For more than three decades he did not sell a single kite - but he continued to make them as a hobby. One day after he retired, he was flying a Chinese dragon on Tiananmen Square when some foreigners saw it and started watching him. They were excited and wanted to buy one. Grandpa was amazed - for so long he had not received any interest in his kites. He reopened the business in 1982 and sold his kites in department stores frequented by foreigners. There was huge demand from overseas tourists and they were willing to pay a fair price, but domestic customers were cold. The new social elites were too busy making money. They could no longer feel the beauty of a kite - they'd rather spend thousands of yuan for a bottle of Chivas in a nightclub. Kite culture is lost in China. It is no longer a symbol of upper-class entertainment, it is just a cheap toy for kids.

Do you sell kites overseas?

Not any more. In the 1990s, many people sensed the opportunity and mass-production lines were set up in places where there was no tradition of kites. An enormous amount of low-quality, copycat products flooded the market. They were badly designed - and many couldn't even fly! This ruined the reputation of the Chinese kite. In the 1980s we could sell a kite for several hundred yuan, but in 2000 the market price dropped to under 10 yuan. I've seen foreign traders fall in love with our kites, but when they hear the price they hesitate.

Why did you take over the business?

I grew up with my grandfather. Kite making is in my blood. When I graduated from university with a degree in fine arts I decided to keep the tradition alive. My classmates could not understand. 'Kites are out of fashion,' some of them said. 'You can't be an artist by making a kite. You can't even make a decent living. Why not find a comfortable job in an IT company and paint pictures for websites and online games?' To some extent they are right. Most of the people who fly kites in Beijing are senior citizens. The young generation has no interest. Many things are attracting their attention, and kites are definitely not cool. But if I didn't take over the business, the craft may be lost forever. Our shop is small, and I am doing everything I can to sustain it. More than 80 per cent of the customers are foreigners - they respect my craft.