Mr. Wang working in his shop
These days, when someone tells me to go fly a kite, I usually say
yes. Especially if I’m in China. And especially if the person
telling me to do it is Mr. Wang.
Mr. Wang is Wang Chi Feng, and he’s a master kite-builder. He’s
been doing it since he was 6 years old, having learned at the knee
of his father, who was also a kite-builder, and his grandfather,
who was an artisan to the last emperor. Except for a few years
during the Cultural Revolution, when he was forced to move to
Mongolia and became a horse wrangler, Mr. Wang has never done
Mr. Wang’s shop consists of 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 in fact, it seems every surface
are covered with Mr. Wang’s work: kites of all sizes, colors and
descriptions. There are kites shaped like butterflies, swallows,
dragonflies and centipedes, kites that stretch all the way across
the ceiling of the shop and kites that are so small they can fit
into a letter-size envelope.
As we talk, Mr. Wang, who gives his age as 58, peers over a
kerosene flame at his workbench, slowly bending a thin piece of
bamboo. His patience is infinite, born out of years of perfecting
“The most difficult part of making a kite,” he said, never
taking his eye off the flame, “is making the skeleton.”
In time from five to seven days Mr. Wang will finish this kite,
and depending on who has ordered it, ship it out from his shop.
Kite-making, like so many other artisan skills, is slowly dying out
in China (the hutong where he lives may soon fall to the bulldozer
to make way for a new, gleaming apartment building) and Mr. Wang is
clearly one of the last of his kind.
It began, according to history and legend, in China more than
2,000 years ago, when kites were used mainly for war. Generals
would send messages up in the air, painted on kites, and in later
years, as warfare became more sophisticated, kites became a kind of
banner to announce the type and strength of the forces below.
Mr. Wang, whose grandfather was
an artisan to the last emperor,
creates kites in a wide variety of styles.
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.
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
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 announced 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.
Meanwhile, since it’s too cold to go outside and actually fly a
kite and too crowded in the warren of buildings, with 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 said
And then he sets to work making another kite, this time in the
shape of a dragon as if for the long-ago emperor who might have
commissioned it from his grandfather.
Mr. Wang’s kite-making class will be part of The Peninsula Academy
later this year at The Peninsula Beijing hotel. Other courses
include Chinese medicine, a guided tour of the Great Wall and
antique furniture restoration. Other Peninsula properties offer