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The Weifang Kite Factory

As it turned out, the kite factory was inside the Folk Art Museum in the village of Yangjiabu, right outside Weifang. The village is famous throughout Chinese history as THE center of kite-making, and we saw kites everywhere. Kite stores lined the main street and flew from doorways and windows.

Entering the kite factory, we caught a glance "behind the scenes": a courtyard filled with ageing bamboo. As our guide explained, the best kites are made from Sichuan bamboo that has aged for several years. Whenever a new piece is needed, someone goes out into the yard and saws it off.

The factory's location inside a museum demonstrates the creativity of Chinese capitalism. The factory owner probably realized that he could make more money by calling it a "museum exhibit", which would net him not only a US$10 admission fee per head but also tax-free status!

We weren't the only tourists - a group of People's Liberation Army officials was visiting at the same time, cameras at the ready. I thought all Chinese would know how kites are made but they were as fascinated as we were!

"Factory" had us picturing machines and heavy industry - but it turned out to be a big word for an entirely hand-made operation! Different rooms housed different processes. Above left the women are constructing bamboo frames. To the right you can see them painting the "skins" and assembling finished kites.

Since this was an up-close-and-personal factory tour (the best kind!), we were able to take our time to learn about each step in the process.

The first step is making the bamboo frames. Starting with a length of bamboo from the yard, a worker first splits each piece successive times, and then uses a really sharp knife to slim the piece down to the proper shape and thinness.

The hard part of this step is to get the bamboo pieces to weigh just the right amount, and to be tapered (or thicker) in just the right places. Everyone worked from memory. This step is key: if they get it wrong, the kite won't fly.

The older women perform this high-skill step. The pitcure doesn't capture the detail, but this woman's fingers bore scars from her years of experience!

After cutting and trimming, the bamboo is bent into shape. The workers heat the wood over an alcohol burner,then deftly make precise bends in the wood. It takes just a few seconds and looks easy, but it's clearly not. The wood needs to be heated up just enough (but not too much!), and then quickly bent into shape.

Once again, there were no manuals or guides -- everything was done from memory. In place of nicks and cuts, this worker's fingers bore burn scars.

The next step is to glue the pieces of bamboo together, and then clamp them while they dried. This sort of assembly is much easier and less precise, and it's done by the younger women.
This delicate frame will be the body of a dragonfly. it was amazing to watch how fast everyone worked -- before long, there was a big pile of bamboo frames on the table.

Painting the "skins" of the kites took place in another room. Each painter placed a pattern below a piece of silk-paper from Suzhou (China's silk capital), then quickly traced the pattern with a pencil. We never saw anyone use an eraser!

The painting was done assembly-line style, with each worker using a different color paint. Some of the steps required a fair bit of skill (like the blue lines of the left), while others involved broad swipes. Interestingly, all of the broad-swipers were men! Big-picture guys, evidently. Not into details.

At first, it seemed like outlining the colors with fine strokes of silver or gold was unnecessary given all the bright colors. But it quickly became clear that this detail made all the colors "pop"! The work looked very tricky - a slip or tremor could blot the whole piece and ruin all the work that came before. (Back to the women, of course).

After the skins finished drying on a rack above rhe radiator, they were glued to the bamboo frames. This step looked pretty straight-forward, and perhaps as a result, these women were the most talkative bunch. I winced when I watched them trim off the excess painted paper that had required so much labor to create, but I guess there is no way to avoid it.

Some of the "skin-fastening" was a bit more tricky. The insect bodies shown below, for example, required several different pieces. These were first skinned with plain silk, then painted while on the frame. We saw at least half a dozen kite styles in process, and our guide said the factory makes literally hundreds of different kinds.

Unlike the phoenix kites we had seen being painted in the other room, each dragonfly was painted by one person, rather than in an assembly line. I got a kick out of seeing how prosaic the basic ingredients and tools were (note the sawed-off Coke can on the right), in contrast to the beautiful end product.

The finished dragonfly bodies were beautiful -- full of color, and complete with bug eyes that rotate in the wind. Each was also signed by the final worker. As the picture on the right shows, this one was made by worker "29."

The completed phoenix kites were also gorgeous. It was wonderful to see how all of the pieces came together. Stacked together, they looked as if they came from the same machine. But we now knew better -- each was the end result of several craftspeople and lots of work!

It turned out that the Folk-Art Museum in which the kite factory was housed also had a famous New Year calendar factory. It didn't have anything to do with kites, but we were curious about this other ancient craft tradition.


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