The Colorful History of Kites9 min read

Kites have been around for generations across various cultures. While we mostly fly them for leisure today, the history of kites is a lot more fascinating than that. You probably know some cultures include kites as part of their festivals. Besides this, kites have also assisted the military in observing the enemy and signaling corps. They have even been involved in scientific research conducted by the likes of Benjamin Franklin and the Wright Brothers.

So it’s safe to say that the history of kites is strewn with a lot of fascinating events. This post will attempt to navigate through kite flying history and help you discover some of the most interesting facts.

Who Invented the Kite?

There is no exact answer to the question of who invented the kite. Though there is a lot of speculation about the exact origin of kites, all we know is that it was invented in Asia thousands of years ago.

It’s possible that China was the country of origin. That would make sense because the Chinese had all the material needed to build a kite. This includes bamboo for a resilient and lightweight frame, fine silk strings for a flying line, and silk fabric for a sail.

The earliest Chinese kites were flat and shaped like a rectangle until they eventually started incorporating bowlines for more stability. They would decorate their kites with legendary figures and mythological motifs, sometimes adding whistles and strings so that the kites sing as they fly.

Some believe that the Chinese philosophers Mozi and Lu Ban invented the kite back in the 5th Century BC. What we know for sure is that paper kites had already existed around 200 BC. General Han Xin, the Chinese general who played a vital role in the founding of the Han dynasty, had already used kites in military applications back then.

During one of his military campaigns, the general had a kite flown over a city he was attacking. This helped him measure exactly how far his army would have to tunnel to get past the city’s defenses. This strategy helped his troops take the enemy by surprise, emerging victorious in the end.

The Spread of Kite Flying to Other Countries

Kite flying gradually spread along trade routes from China to countries like Japan, Korea, and India. When kites were introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks, it was around the 7th Century AD. They served as talismans to keep evil spirits at bay. Some people even used them as invocations so they could get a good harvest.

History of Kites in Japan – Kite flying became more popular in Japan during the Edo Period, between 1603 and 1868. That’s when people below the Samurai class finally gained the permission to fly kites. However, the government felt that people became less focused on their work so it tried to discourage them from indulging in the pastime. As you can guess, this didn’t sit too well with the common folk.

Artist: Suzuki Harunobu

One of the most popular Japanese legends related to kite-flying is that of a thief named Kakinoki Kinsuke. It is said that around 1712, he used a large kite to transport himself to the top of Nagoya Castle. All he managed to steal were the scales of the golden tiger-headed carps, but he got severely punished once he was captured.

History of Kites in Korea – The history of kites in Korea is shrouded in stories of military applications just as in China. Kites were introduced to Korea during the period of the Three Kingdoms (4-645 AD). One of the stories is from the Silla Dynasty, which lasted between 595 and 673 AD.

The story goes that General Gim Yu-Sin was given an order to subdue a revolt. However, his troops had seen a large shooting star fall from the sky and refused to fight because they considered it a bad omen. The general came up with a plan to release a kite into the night sky as it carried a bright fireball.

In the dark, this would look like the star was being returned to the sky. Seeing this, his troops finally agreed to fight. They rallied and overpowered the rebels in no time.

History of Kites in India – The oldest known record of kite flying in India was during the Mogul Period. Miniature paintings from the 1500s depicted what looked to be people flying kites. The most popular theme involved a young man using kites to send messages to his lover, who was being held in seclusion from the rest of the world.

Kite Flying Arrives in Europe and Fuels Research

Although kites arrived much later in Europe, the Romans had been using windsock-like banners for a while. Before their actual arrival into the region, Marco Polo had already brought back stories of these fascinating contraptions around the late 13th century. It was during the 16th and 17th centuries that Europe finally saw kites for the first time after sailors brought them back from Japan and Malaysia.

Initially, people regarded kites as mere curiosities, until they began to support scientific research around the 18th and 19th centuries. It was in 1752 that Benjamin Franklin conducted his famous kite experiment, which proved that electricity caused lightning. The Wright brothers used kites as a crucial instrument in their research and they eventually developed the first airplane during the 1800s.

The Evolution of Kites

The period between 1860 and 1910 was popularly called the “golden age of kiting.” During this period, several man-lifting kite designs came into being. Following this, the 20th century saw new developments of kite designs.

William Abner Eddy developed the tailless diamond kite, which became a popular kids’ kite. Francis and Gertrude Rogallo came up with the self-inflating Parawing, sometimes called the Rogallo wing.

Image Credit: NASA on Wikimedia

It was during the same period that we saw the development of the tetrahedral kite, the parafoil, the power kite, and the sled kite. These kites also underwent adaptations to develop the modern flying contraptions that you can find today. They adapted the Rogallo wing to create hang gliders and stunt kites. They also adapted the parafoil to create paragliders and parachutes.

The Uses of Kites throughout History

As discussed before, kites have been used in military applications even before Common Era. The Chinese popularized the use of kites in warfare. In addition to using them for tactical observations, they also used them to develop weapons.

For instance, the Fire Crow was popularly used during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD). They would load up a kite with incendiary powder and fit it with a fuse and a burning incense stick so that it would eventually explode.

The use of kites in warfare did not stop even in the modern era. The British Army used man-carrying kites developed by Samuel Franklin Cody to lift up human lookouts into the air. This helped them effectively observe enemy movements.

Image Source: Wikimedia

During the Second World War, they used balloon kites in defense. Besides this, kites also helped soldiers in anti-aircraft target practice. Submarines would sometimes loft observers using rotary kites. Kites and kytoons even helped in lofting communications antenna.

The history of kites also saw several applications in science and meteorology. In addition to Ben Franklin and the Wright brothers, there were several other brilliant minds that conducted experiments with the help of kites. Alexander Graham Bell, for instance, used large man-lifting kites in his experiments.

Kites have also helped in lifting scientific instruments used for measuring atmospheric conditions and weather forecasting. As early as 1847, William Radcliffe Birt and Francis Ronalds had experimented with a kite to suspend self-registering meteorological instruments in the air.

Kites and Their Cultural Significance

Kites have even assisted some cultures in finding daily sustenance. The people of Micronesia have been using kites this way for centuries. They mostly use them in fishing, where they would suspend bait on the surface of the water using a leaf kite.

The Micronesians also have a kite flying event, which stemmed from a mythological story of two brother gods named Tan and Rango. According to the story, the two brothers challenged each other to a kite duel and introduced kites to humans in the process. Tan’s kite got entangled in a tree while Rango’s flew high in the air.

Kite duels aren’t just limited to Micronesian culture either. You will see different versions of a kite duel or a kite fight throughout different cultures. The Malay Annals and the Afghans each have their own version of kite fighting. India even has actual festivals for kite fighting, mostly popular in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar, and West Bengal.

A lot of these cultures have something in common. They would pass their kite strings through ground glass powder to make them abrasive. With these abrasive strings, they can easily cut their opponents’ kite strings and win the fight. In Pakistan, kite flying is an important ritual in the festival celebrating the coming of spring, known as Jashn-e-Baharaan.

Final Thoughts

From what we’ve discussed, it’s clear to see that the history of kites truly is fascinating. Their history of military applications is violent, but their instrumental role in scientific research is equally commendable.

Kites have also been central to the mythologies and legends of different cultures around the world. They still play a vital role in cultural events and festivals even today. So they are more than just recreational contraptions or kids’ toys. Anyone who is fascinated with kite flying should definitely use this guide to learn more about its colorful history.

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