Silk lords of the sky

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 January, 2011, 12:00am

Dragonflies, cranes and dragons rule the sky in Weifang, Shandong province . With their sturdy bamboo skeletons and fine silk coats, the creatures soar and swoop in the air. They were all crafted by local masters, like Yang Hongwei.

Yang comes from a prominent local kite-making family. Her grandfather, Yang Tongke, who began crafting kites at age nine, has earned the title of Weifang's First Kite Master.

Weifang, known as the 'Capital of Kites', is home to generations of kite-makers. The city has the largest kite museum in the world and hosts the yearly International Kite Festival.

'I spent my childhood in my family's workshop watching my grandfather make kites,' Yang recalls. 'I was bedazzled by how his deft hands evenly split bamboo sticks, structured symmetrical frames and glued on sails made of the finest silk.'

It was not until Yang was 20 that she joined the design team in the family workshop and began proper kite-making training. It took her three years to master the ancient craft, which involves four major parts - structuring, paperhanging, painting and flying - that could add up to more than 60 different procedures.

Yang has incorporated elements of traditional New Year woodblock drawings into her designs, which boast fine symmetry and flashy colours.

Modern features like rolling eyeballs also show up in her work.

Yang says her kites are light enough to take flight in a breeze yet can still hold their own in strong winds. She makes all her kites by hand. An artist's brush, she explains, 'can give kites a unique life and spirit that machines cannot produce'.

It's quality that matters to her. 'I once tripled my workforce to cope with bumper kite orders in the 1990s, but it became difficult to monitor and maintain quality,' Yang says.

'I eventually decided to take fewer orders and cut my staff back down to five or six people to ensure that every kite is perfectly produced.'

Before it is sold, each kite undergoes a trial flight. 'I put an emphasis not only on kites' aesthetics but also on their ability to fly high and well. Kites are meant to fly,' Yang says.

Her masterpiece is a majestic 360-metre-long dragon kite with a long train of kite disks. It took about 20 people two months to complete. In a later version, the kite disks showed 100 children at play.

Yang was named a Shandong Intangible Cultural Heritage Representative in 2009. She makes a point of popularising this ancient Chinese art form internationally.

For the past 24 years, Yang has travelled far and near, from Germany in 1997 to the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, to showcase her work.

She also spent a month touring schools in the US to teach children the techniques of kite-making.

'A German lady refused to believe my kites on display were all handcrafted,' Yang says.

'For two hours, she stood there at my counter watching intensely as I made a new kite from scratch. She loved it.'

A magnificent 30-metre-long dragon kite handcrafted by Weifang's masters under Yang's supervision is on display in ifc mall in Central until February 13