Veteran craftsman fears for the future of his traditional profession

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/17 17:33:40

Fei Baolin makes a kite Photo :Courtesy of Beijing Dongcheng District Culture Committee

A double swallow kite once given as a gift at weddings in China Photo: IC

If you watched the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, you may remember that one of the five Olympic mascots was a swallow-shaped kite named Ni Ni. This particular shape was chosen for the mascot because the kites are one of the most popular type of kites flown in Beijing.

One particular type of swallow-shaped kites are called Cao kites, named after Cao Xueqin (1715-63), the author behind the famous romance novel Dream of the Red Chamber.

Cao once wrote an eight-volume book illustrating different professions that ordinary people could make a living with, one section in particular showed how to make swallow-shaped kites. Although the book was apparently never published, it turned up again during the 1940's in the hands of a Japanese businessman. At the time, kite maker Kong Xiangze managed to copy the book and began making kites based on Cao's designs, thus establishing the Cao school of kite making.

Eighty-nine-year-old Fei Baoling, who has been making kites for more than six decades, is an inheritor of this Cao school.    

Hobby to career

During his childhood, Fei loved to fly kites. During the 1950s, however, there were few people selling kites in Beijing due to the turmoil brought about by the Chinese civil war (1946-49). Unable to enjoy his favorite hobby, the then 20-something Fei decided to learn how to make kites on his own.

It was during his time as an amateur kite maker that Fei met Kong Xiangze. Impressed with the young man's talent at kite making, the experienced kite maker decided to take Fei under his wing.

Kong began to share with Fei his skills in creating Cao kites. For the next 30 years, the two would work together making Cao kites. They also continued researching the chapter on kites that Cao had written. This would lead to them publishing two modern analyses on Cao-style kites.  

When Fei first began making kites under Kong's instruction, he still saw it mainly as a hobby that he did during his off time from his job at a bank. However, a big break in 1972 ended up changing his life.

According to Fei, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) many folk arts were regarded as the "four olds" (old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits), and so many young Chinese decided to abandon folk arts. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when diplomatic relations between China and the West were improving, a large number of foreign visitors arrived. These visitors were smitten with traditional Chinese handicrafts, helping to increase demand for them. To further promote the creation of these traditional handicrafts, then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai organized an arts and crafts exhibition in Beijing in 1972.

Since he did not come from a professional background, Fei didn't think he would have a chance to attend the exhibition, but he knew he had to try. He brought his kites to a State-owned arts and crafts store and asked the managers to show his kites to the organizers. They liked his kites so much they decided to give him a stall at the exhibition.

"After that I was constantly asked by government departments to attend overseas exhibitions," Fei said.

Fei later resigned from the bank in order to concentrate on making kites full time.

A dying tradition

While Fei has four children who all love kites, none of them wanted to become a kite craftsman since they felt it paid too little. Even most of Fei's students, who range between the ages of 20 to 60, mainly make kites as a part-time job.

Considering this situation, Fei is worried that the skills he has spent a large part of his life acquiring will soon disappear from the face of the Earth. He noted that modern mass-produced kites have also been a challenge for the industry.

While a modern kite from the assembly line is simple to make, easy to carry and costs only a little more than 10 yuan ($1.50), a handmade kite will cost at least 500 yuan and cannot be folded up.

He pointed out that in today's big cities there are not many open spaces left for flying kites. 

Fei remains unfazed. He said he is more than willing to pass on his knowledge to others so long as they love kites and are not only focused on making money.

Newspaper headline: The Kite Maker


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