On Silken Wings

A program at The Peninsula Beijing introduces guests to an ancient art form

By: Jim Calio

This is the first Image
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 anything else.

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 his craftsmanship.

“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.

This is the second Image
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 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 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 proudly.

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 similar programs.