Traditional Asian kites tend to feature a lot of art! Either the entire kite itself is a work of art, like the Chinese Dragon, or the surface of the kite is used as an artist's easel. Like the big Japanese Rokkakus featuring ferocious faces. In between are hundreds if not thousands of other designs which feature intricate or simply beautiful artwork over the sail. For example the Wau Bulan from Malaysia, which we have been fortunate enough to see up close.
Not authentic, but Asian-inspired!
Not authentic, but Asian-inspired!
Some Asian cultures have focused more on fighting kites which naturally are built with flying performance in mind. But they still tend to be attractive craft to look at, just with bolder and simpler artwork. These include kites from India and Korea. Japan also could be included, although there is less emphasis on fighting with kites over there.
It would be possible to literally write volumes about the kites of Asia. But this page will just aim to give you a sense of how the style and look of traditional kites vary across the Asian nations. I've probably left a few out that are less well known. There are quite a few nations in South-East Asia and I'm guessing kites have flown in every one of them over the last few centuries.
I'll go light on history here, but a bit of such info does go hand in hand with anything traditional doesn't it ;-)
Although Western kites dominate in the online stores, modern-material replicas or faithful re-creations of traditional Asian kites will be around for a long time yet. Some keen master kite-makers out there are determined to keep the old skills alive! Much of this is being coordinated on social media.
A handful of kite experts in China oversee the production and export of a steady stream of replicas to overseas buyers. And there's the very much alive Indonesian cottage industry of 'Bali kites' that sells to tourists and also to foreign buyers via online stores.
Asian Kites Going South
How to put in order the countries covered below? Well, it seemed logical to go North to South, since that's largely how kites spread out from China in the first place!
In the very early days (BC), kites were seen as a military technology, believe it or not. Just as balloons and aircraft were used for reconnaisance during the second millenium (1000AD - 2000AD), there were documented attempts by Chinese generals to get observers in the air under (or on) large kites.
As the centuries passed, kite flying in China became a national pastime. Creature kites were the most popular, in soft-winged, rigid-winged and centipede configurations. Intricate and colorful art abounded in the designs. The best and most expensive Chinese kites were made of split bamboo and silk.
To this day, replicas of the old traditional designs are being made and shipped all over the world. Like that Swallow in the photo.
The Edo era is often mentioned where Japanese kites are discussed. During this time, from the 18th century onwards, various regions of the country developed and became known for kite designs that were specific to the region.
A good kite was one that flew without needing a tail for stability. This required accuracy, symmetry and light weight in construction.
'Edo' can also refer to the very first kite design local to Japan, a simple rectangular lattice of bamboo strips covered with paper. This frame was curved in a way which gave the kite stability in the air. Just like a dihedral angle works in modern kites.
Just as in China, some individuals would devote almost their entire lifetime to the highly-skilled production of craft that looked good and flew even better!
I have met a modern-day Japanese kite master - Mikio Toki. The encounter was brief. Mikio looked up and inquisitively studied my big Multi-Dowel Barn Door flying at the Adelaide kite festival one year. The kite actually wasn't that much to look at - but at least it had no tail and flew very steady ;-)
Old Japanese kites often feature scenes, figures or just the faces of human characters. We saw a group of authentic and quite large Rokkakus once at the local kite festival, each featuring a ferocious warrior-style face.
A fighter-kite nation! Just like the first Japanese design, the most well-known kites from Korea are also rectangular. But the similarity stops there, since these designs have crossed diagonal spars and a large circular hole in the center.
Two types by shape predominate, the rectangular with holes and the diamond...
- Bangpae yeon are the most common rectangular kites and are used for general recreational flying or for sale to tourists. Depending on weather conditions they are sometimes flown with a simple rectangular tail looped from one lower corner of the kite to the other. Pangp'aeyon, or shield kites, are more robust and can be used for kite fighting bouts. Last one in the air wins, after you try to saw through everyone else's lines with your own!
- Gaori-Yon are a traditional diamond-shaped kite.
I've seen photos of several Bangpae yeon flying on a single line, with fairly short looped tails. I like to put up a 'kite train' as it's called too - but with diamonds steadied by drogues instead of Asian kites.
"Love the easy to understand step by step instructions, made from next to nothing materials and above all so much fun to fly... cheers Tim for sharing your well thought out pdf kite designs with the whole world. Very satisfying making your own and watching them get air-born for the first time."
"I decided to run kite making as an elective again on this camp in the past week - so I bought all your e-books, a bunch of materials, and then took a group of 10 high school students through making the kites over 4 days. We built a diamond, a Barn Door, a Delta, and two skew delta kites. Again - every single kite flew."
Home of the Patang, the legendary fighting kite that has been exported and copied elsewhere in the world.
In my first year at High School, I bought an 'Indian Kite' from a store which looked similar in design to the Patang and had several light streamers as a tail. And what an awesome flier it was! I will never forget my surprise and pleasure at seeing the bamboo and tissue craft pop up super-steep in a light breeze, out on a vacant block one day. Within months, I would lose it when Cyclone Tracy came through and leveled the entire city, but that's another story...
The Patang is made in several variations, including some quite small kites. And there are other types, but there is one noticeable common feature... A curved horizontal spar crosses the vertical spar quite close to the nose end of the kite before extending down to the side corners of the sail.
I remember an Indian man enthusiastically handling a tiny fighter on a long length of thread at our local kite festival one time. He was practically working up a sweat :-)
Other Indian kites feature rectangular areas of sail in various configurations. These are not fighters but instead are often a handy easel for decoration or images of people. Most notably, for politicians around election time!
The common ancestry of some Asian kites is apparent in the use of pointy wing-tips. For example, compare the kites of Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. But never-the-less there are features distinctive of the country of origin...
I'll mention 2 common types of Thai kite here, both of which are used in kite-fighting...
- The Chula is regarded as the 'King of Kites' and is large with pointed wing-tips and bird-like tail section. As we continue to head South, you will notice those pointed tips in other South-East Asian kite cultures too.
- The Pakpao is regarded as the 'Queen of Kites' and looks like a medium-sized diamond kite. Like Western diamonds, the kite is often flown with a lengthy thin tail. On closer inspection, you'll notice the curved horizontal spar which of course it has in common with the Indian Patang.
This is just the tip of the iceburg since there are many other types and variations of kites in Thailand.
Traditional kite festivals abound although people no longer have the time to fly these Asian kites for weeks or months on end as in the old days! Apparently.
Vietnamese diều sáo
This country has a kite culture that extends back to around 1000 AD!
Vietnamese diều sáo
A unique aspect of this is the existence of Ba Duong Noi village, in the Dan Phuong district of Hanoi. Kite making and flying has been going on here - pretty much continuously - for over 1000 years. The characteristic design has remained unchanged as well. An elegant flying-wing design that despite it's simple appearance requires considerable skill and finesse to make well. Frames use split bamboo and coverings are from paper.
In other regions of the country, the pointed-tip style of wing remains but there is great variety in tail-sections and paddle-like tail structures. Modern materials are also incorporated as people find new and practical ways to re-express the traditional flying craft.
Bamboo flutes which make soft sounds in the airflow over the top of the kite are an integral part of the traditional kite-flying exercise. This feature, or taut strings that vibrate to make sound are sometimes seen in other Asian kites as well.
Malaysian Wau Kuching
In a similar way to Japan, various regions of this sprawling island nation are each known for a particular type of kite. The most well-known would have to be the Wau Bulan, or 'Moon Kite'. In common with most Thai and Vietnamese kites, it has those pointy wing-tips. A tail section is in the shape of the crescent moon and elaborate tassles are often trailed from the tips of wings and/or tail.
Malaysian Wau Kuching
We saw some great examples of the Wau Bulan at the Adelaide Kite festival one year. The elaborate and intricate decoration was one thing - but I was personally most impressed with how efficiently the kite flew! It was doing better than most of the large deltas on the day. Come to think of it, traditional Asian kites don't seem to get a big showing at our festival. They tend to pull plenty of eye-balls when they do make an appearance though.
Here's some other Wau kite variations, which all have the same basic wing shape ...
- Wau Jala Budi - the 'Woman Kite'
- Wau Kuching - the 'Cat Kite'. See a fantastic example of one of these in the photo!
- Wau Barat - the 'Leaf Kite'.
- Wau Merak - the 'Peacock Kite'
My Bali Eagle
I'll just mention the Bali kites here, since they have really made a splash on the global stage! Kids and adults alike have been making simple kites for a long time on this tropical Indonesian island. But in recent decades the place has become known for creating realistic colorful creature kites and selling them to tourists. The kites are also available for sale online.
My Bali Eagle
I have flown one of these myself, just to get some photos. There's my Bali Eagle in the photo. Flying performance was rather modest but at least it looked good in flight! The kite would glide around on a slack line too, which added to it's realism.
Traditional Balinese kites also include some very large sparred craft which are flown with incredibly long ribbon tails. You can see a number of these in the air at once, at the annual kite festival over there, weather permitting of course.