A Family Kitemaking Business In China

12/07/2011 07:57 am ET | Updated Feb 06, 2012

Wang Chi Feng is a master kite-builder, a craftsman who has been making wind-born marvels since he was six years old and learning at the knee of his father, who was taught by his father, who was an artisan to the last emperor. During the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Wang was forced to move to Mongolia to become a horse wrangler. Otherwise, he has never done anything but make kites.

I'm standing in his shop, a large room that faces a narrow alleyway in one of Beijing's "hutongs," those old, single family dwellings built around an interior courtyard that are fast disappearing. The walls of the shop are covered with Mr. Wang's work. There are kites shaped like butterflies, swallows, dragonflies and centipedes. There are kites that stretch all the way across the ceiling of the shop and kites that are so small they can fit into a regular size envelope.

Mr. Wang, who gives his age as 58, is bending over a small kerosene flame at his workbench, slowly bending a thin piece of bamboo. His patience is infinite, born out of years of perfecting his craftsmanship.

"The most difficult part of making a kite," he says, never taking his eye off the flame, "is making the skeleton."

In time -- anywhere from five to seven days -- Mr. Wang will finish this kite and, depending on who ordered it, ship it out from his shop.

Kite-making, like so many other artisan skills, is slowly dying out in China and Mr. Wang is clearly one of the last upholders of a tradition that began, according to legend, more than 2000 years ago, when kites were used mainly for war. Generals would send messages up in the air, painted on kites -- some even sent soldiers up in the air to spy on the enemy from afar. In later years, as warfare became more sophisticated, kites became a kind of banner to announce the type and strength of the forces below.

But China isn't the only country to have found many uses for kites. Even in the early days of the US, Benjamin Franklin famously flew a kite in a thunderstorm to prove that lightning was electricity.

After bending several pieces of finely-cut bamboo into the skeleton of the kite, Mr. Wang will take some traditional Chinese ink paint and make elaborate designs on silk, which will then be cut to fit the skeleton. Such is his skill, honed after all these years, that he seldom works from a drawing or blueprint, unless it is a special order. He knows exactly what length to cut the bamboo and exactly how to cut the silk to fit it.

He will then fit the silk, in the shape of wings for birds or insects, for example, to the bamboo skeleton with glue or thin silk thread. In smaller kites, the frames are sometimes held together by splitting the ends of the bamboo and interlocking the pieces. And, as with so many things Chinese, different designs can mean different things. But in the old days, one rule was inviolable: The dragon kites could only be built for and used by the royal family.

Mr. Wang now makes a living demonstrating kite-making on cruise ships that come to China. He's even got a video of himself flying a kite off the back deck of one of the ships, the kite twisting lazily in the wind, and a hawk circling the kite, as if not quite knowing what to make of it. But he clearly loves the building process, and he at last sees a chance to pass his skills down to the next generation.

"My daughter is learning kite making," he announces proudly, "and she loves this art." His daughter, who is 29 and his only child, has come late to the family business, but she will apparently carry on the tradition begun by her great-grandfather and all those who came before him.

Meanwhile, since it's too cold to go outside and actually fly a kite -- and too crowded in the warren of buildings and telephone wires strung overhead -- Mr. Wang chooses to give me a kite-flying lesson indoors. He picks up a hawk-like kite with a wing span of about three feet, backs up to one side of the room and gently pushes the big bird into the air.

It floats across the room, landing gently on the floor next to the space heater.

"An eagle does not need the wind to stay aloft," he says proudly, smiling.

He promptly sets to work making another kite, this time in the shape of a dragon, the sort of beast his grandfather made fly for the emperor long ago.