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HK Magazine Archive

What Are the Portable Electric Fans Everyone Has?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 July, 2015, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:45pm

Dear Mr. Know-It-All,
Everyone seems to have one of those hand-held electric fans. They’ve popped up overnight! What’s the deal? – Big Fan 

The fans are surprisingly powerful—a far cry from those weak portables of the past, whose unprotected plastic blades were more likely to impale you than keep you cool. They’re also cheap, starting at just $40. And as they’re rechargeable from a USB port they’re a lot more suited to our modern lifestyle, where batteries are an inconceivable inconvenience.

The original fan—inasmuch as this could ever be established—seems to be the Gongtian brand, model F95B. It’s known as the bah jiu seen (芭蕉扇)—the palm-leaf or plantain fan—and it’s takes its name from one of the greatest episodes in Chinese folklore: Sun Wukong and the plantain fan.

Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is one of the central characters of the “Journey to the West,” Wu Cheng’en’s classic 16th century tale about the monk Tang Sanzang’s pilgrimage from China to India in search of Buddhist scripture. He is accompanied by his reformed demon disciples, including the trickster Monkey King himself.

In the tale, Sanzang and his disciples come across the Mountain of Flames, an impassible range of raging fire which burns man and demon alike. The only way to quell the flames is to borrow a plaintain-leaf fan which belongs to Princess Iron Fan. But the Princess and the travelers are old enemies, and she refuses to lend the fan to Sun Wukong. The two fight and the Princess raises her mighty fan, blowing the Monkey King halfway around the world.

But Sun Wukong isn’t the type of trickster-sage to accept defeat easily. He makes his way back to the princess, who tries to fan him away once more: But this time he has swallowed a Wind-Arresting Elixir, and can’t be moved. The Princess flees but Sun Wukong transforms himself into a tiny cricket and leaps inside her stomach, kicking and punching from the inside out. Defeated, the princess gives up her prized fan. But it turns out to be a fake and instead of calming the flames, it builds them to a raging heat, raising them 10,000 feet into the sky.

So Sun Wukong returns once more to the Princess, disguised as her husband, the Bull King. He tricks the real fan from her and goes on his merry way. But the Bull King arrives and, in disguise as well, is able to steal the fan back once more. The Bull and the Monkey King fight a hundred rounds and a hundred more with no victor, until at last the Jade Emperor and Buddha themselves send guardian spirits to capture the renegade Bull King. Sun Wukong finally wins his prize: He fans the Mountain of Flames three times with all his might, and the fires wink out. At last, the travellers can continue their pilgrimage to the west.

A fan which can calm the fire at the heart of a mountain: And for just $40 it can cool you on a summer day. What a bargain.