Fans have been used in China for centuries, by both men and women and by all social classes, from the wealthiest merchants and highest-ranking officials down to the poorest coolies. The fan remained a unisex accessory well into the 20th century and in now enjoying a noticeable renaissance, again among both genders.
Historically, the main difference between those of men and women was the number of ribs the fan had. One of the few cost variables was the material used. Ivory, tortoiseshell and hand-painted silk could be found on the expensive, high-end versions while thinly wrought bamboo and other materials were more commonplace. Carved sandalwood fans were particularly popular and retained their delicate fragrance for years.
A standard fan used in southern China was made from the Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis). The leaves of the plant resemble fans and can be either cut and edged, to prevent fraying, and used as nature designed, or stripped back to the central and radial spines and re-woven.
High quality Livistona fans were a village speciality in Sun Wui, one of the more prosperous Pearl River delta districts, from where they have been exported for centuries. Artistically wrought examples of the highest quality can still be found there.
Fans were first exported to Europe by early Portuguese navigators and, by the end of the 16th century, they had become highly prized items in that part of the world. Unlike spices and other more perishable articles, fans (if properly packed and stored) could survive lengthy sea voyages without damage.
As China's trade with Europe burgeoned in the late 17th century, fans, along with tea, silk and porcelain, became extremely sought after, high-margin fashion accessories. They served a variety of uses: the flick or snap of a fan could be an emphatic gesture - graceful, pointed or anything in between; they could be whispered behind to prevent lip-reading; they could cover the blushes, frowns and giggles caused by coarse or otherwise inappropriate remarks; and - of course - they had a cooling purpose. Initially in Europe - as in China - they were a unisex item. By the mid-18th century, however, they had become exclusively a female accessory.
The famed diary of Englishman Samuel Pepys offers an excellent account of what the affluent considered desirable by way of luxury goods in that period. Earlier travellers' accounts from Macau had already given European consumers some idea of what was available from China and as the 18th century progressed, trade between Europe and the East rapidly expanded, with the Dutch, English and French, in particular, all developing major commercial operations. In consequence their populations became more exposed to Chinese products.
Two interconnected factors came into play - the long period of Chinese openness to the outside world that characterised the reign of the Kangxi emperor and the wealth and influence of France during the equally lengthy rule of Louis XIV (not for nothing was this extravagant, luxury-loving monarch known as the Sun King). At his court, certain items became de rigueur and an elaborate, costly fan, regularly exchanged for a newer model, was one of them. French traders could not import enough Chinese fans to meet demand - very much the reverse of the flow of high-priced European bags into contemporary China.