I was recently given a must-have summer accessory: a rechargeable, hand-held electric fan. Surprisingly powerful, it has been drolly nicknamed a bajiao shan, a traditional type of hand-held fan made from the leaves of the bajiao, or Japanese banana plant (Musa basjoo).

Historically, Chinese fans have been made with the leaves of other plants, too, as well as feathers and paper. The folding paper fans that are still widely used probably came to China from Korea or Japan as tributary gifts, but there’s no agreement as to exactly when.

The fan market also benefited from an early example of celebrity endorsement. When a local official in the north of Guangdong province was stripped of his position during the Eastern Jin dynasty (AD317-420), he returned to the capital (present-day Nanjing) with 50,000 fans. They were made from the Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis), which was common in the region he once governed. In Nanjing, he met with Xie An, the powerful politician, renowned poet and de facto ruler of the state, who took several fans for his own use. After Xie was seen using the fans, everyone wanted one, their retail price shot through the roof and the disgraced official made a fortune.