Art in the sky: Kites first took off in China over 2 millennia ago

A dragon-shaped kite takes flight in Beijing. [Photo/CFP]

Orcas, horses, dragons, the Monkey King from Chinese legend, skeletons,

and even SpongeBob SquarePants - you probably wouldn't expect to see this collection of animals, mythological creatures, and pop cultural icons flying together in the sky, but this spectacle happens every year in Weifang, the "World Kite Capital" in east China's Shandong Province.

Kites, which were invented over 2,000 years ago in China, are believed to be the earliest flying objects created by humans. After centuries of development, kites have become one of the country's representative traditional handicrafts, and kite-making technique was included in the list of China's national intangible cultural heritage in 2006.

The traditional Chinese kite-making technique involves four steps: making the frame, pasting paper onto the frame, painting and decorating it, and then mastering the art of flying the kite.

Currently, the most distinctive kite-making techniques can be found in three regions: Weifang in Shandong Province, Nantong in Jiangsu Province, and Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region. These regions have each developed their own unique characteristics based on traditional kite-making craftsmanship.

The city of Weifang is known as a global hub of kite culture and is widely regarded as the birthplace of these popular flying toys. The themes of Weifang kites are incredibly diverse, encompassing birds, fish, insects, cultural relics, historical figures, myths, and legends.

Today in Weifang, there are virtually no limitations on the shapes or sizes of kites, which can be made to represent people's ideals and aspirations. This diversity can be observed at the annual Weifang International Kite Festival, which has been held on the third Saturday of every April since 1984. More than 10,000 participants from over 30 countries and regions around the world compete in the festival every year.

Unlike the wide variety of forms seen in Weifang, Nantong kites are mostly rectangular. However, there are some deviations in their design, extending to hexagonal, pentagonal and even octagonal shapes. Each of these relates to the traditional Chinese concept of "heaven, earth, and humans living in harmony" as well as the theory of the five elements (fire, water, wood, gold, and earth) in feng shui. For example, hexagons are associated with "water" whereas octagons belong to the "wood" element.

Yet the most distinctive feature of Nantong kites is the attachment of whistles of different sizes, which can range in number from 100 to 300. As such, they have picked up the moniker "air symphonies."

Lhasa kites have gained popularity in various regions of Tibet such as Lhasa, Shigatse, and Zedang, and have even spread to neighboring countries like Nepal and Bhutan. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), they were especially favored by upper-class Tibetans.

The skill of kite-flying in Lhasa is demonstrated through aerial competitions. Skilled practitioners can make their kites rise and fall rapidly, spin, and roll left or right, depending on the pressure they apply on the kite line. In such competitions, battles often ensue, with the winner cutting the string of the loser mid-flight, causing it to drift off into the ether.

Lhasa kites are seasonal and are mostly made for sale in cities like Lhasa and Shigatse during autumn.