Kite Flying

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The exact date and origin of the kite is not known, but historians believe that kites were flown in China more than 2,000 years ago. One legend suggests that the first kite was born when a Chinese farmer tied a string to his hat to keep it from blowing away in a strong wind. The earliest written account of kite flying was about 200 b.c., when the Chinese general Han Hsin of the Han dynasty flew a kite over the walls of a city he was attacking to measure how far his army would have to tunnel to reach past the defenses. By knowing this distance, his troops reached the inside of the city, surprised their enemy, and emerged victorious. Eventually, traders spread kite flying from China to Korea, and across Asia to India. Each area developed a distinctive style of kite, as well as a specific cultural purpose for flying them.

During the Silla dynasty of Korea, around the year 600, General Gim Yu-sin was ordered to subdue a revolt. However, his troops refused to fight because they had seen a large shooting star fall from the sky and believed it to be a bad omen. To regain control, the general used a large kite to carry a fireball into the sky. The soldiers, seeing the star return to heaven, rallied and defeated the rebels. In Korea, therefore, people viewed the kite as a miracle weapon to overcome an enemy invasion, or as a useful pastime play for friendship. Linda Park, in her book Kite Fighter, described a famous story in Korea that dates back to 1473. This book is about two Korean brothers named Kee-sup and Young-sup, who both loved to fly kites, but only Young-sup could launch a kite successfully alone. One day when both brothers were at the hillside flying their kites, they met the king (who was their same age) face-to-face and formed a special friendship. Kite flying was an important recreational activity and provided a socializing opportunity in Korea.

Buddhist monks brought kites to Japan about the seventh century. They were used to avert evil spirits and to ensure rich harvests. Kite flying became very popular in Japan during the Edo period. For the first time, Japanese below the samurai class were allowed to fly kites. The Edo (now Tokyo) government tried unsuccessfully to discourage this pastime as "too many people became unmindful of their work" (Moulton, p. 16). According to one Japanese story, about 300 years ago, a thief was said to use a large kite to carry himself to the top of Nagoya Castle in order to steal a golden statue from the roof. All he was able to remove were a few small pieces. Later, he was captured and punished severely when he bragged of his exploits.

The earliest evidence of Indian kite flying comes from miniature paintings from the Mogul period, around 1500. A favorite theme was of a young man skillfully using his kite to drop messages to a lover who was being held in strict seclusion from him and the rest of the world. There are many stories about how the people of Micronesia used leaf kites to carry bait far out over the water where the garfish fed. The Polynesians have myths about two brother gods introducing kites to man when they had a kite duel. The winning brother flew his kite the highest. There are still contests in the islands where the highest flying kite is dedicated to the gods. Marco Polo carried stories of kites to Europe around the end of the thirteenth century. Illustrations of the period show nonflying dragon kites on military banners. Sailors also brought kites back from Japan and Malaysia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Kites were regarded as curiosities at first and had little impact on European culture. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, kites were used as vehicles and tools for scientific research.

Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Wilson used their knowledge of kite flying to learn more about the wind and weather. Sir George Caley, Samuel Langley, Lawrence Hargrave, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright brothers all experimented with kites and contributed to development of the airplane. During World War I, the British, French, Italian, and Russian armies all used kites for enemy observation and signaling. The introduction of airplanes quickly made these units obsolete. The German navy continued to use man-lifting box kites to increase the viewing range of surface-cruising submarines. In World War II, the U.S. Navy found several uses for kites. Harry Saul's Barrage Kite prevented airplanes from flying too low over targets. Pilots lost at sea raised the Gibson-Girl Box Kite so they could be found. And Paul Garber's Target Kite, a large steerable diamond shape, was used for target practice and aircraft recognition at sea. As the airplane became firmly established, the kite was used less for military purposes or scientific research and more for recreational flying.

The last fifty years has seen renewed interest in kiting. New materials like ripstop nylon, fiberglass, and carbon graphite have made kites stronger, lighter, more colorful, and more durable. Important inventions like Francis Rogallo's flexi-wing and Domina Jalbert's para-foil kites helped develop modern hang gliders and sport parachutes. In 1972, Peter Powell introduced a toy dual-line stunter, and the public began to fly kites not only for fun, but also for sport. Enthusiasts experimented with new designs that could fly precise maneuvers, go faster, or perform intricate tricks. Larger and more powerful kites were designed, and in the 1980s, Peter Lynn of New Zealand introduced a stainless-steel kite-powered buggy. In the 1990s, kite traction on wheels, over water, and on ice became increasingly popular (for example, using kite power to pull sleds in wintry regions). Computer-aided kite design was created in Asia and kite flying has become a combination of modern technology and traditional recreational activity.

See also: Hobbies and Crafts


Eden, Maxwell. The Magnificent Book of Kites. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Sterling House, 2002.

Kent, Sarah. The Creative Book of Kites. New York: Smithmark Publishing, 1996.

Moulton, Ron. Kites. London: Pelham Books, 1979.

Park, Linda. The Kite Fighters. New York: Clarion Books, 2002.

Pelham, David. Kites. New York: Overlook Press, 2000.

Wang, Hongxun. Chinese Kites: Traditional Chinese Arts and Culture. Chicago: Foreign Language Press, 1989.

Philip F. Xie