Fan Art

If we write about every single aspect of the oriental culture, one chapter has to be dedicated to fans. Fans were invented some 3,000 years ago, as an integral part of the oriental culture, they were originally used as a decoration, but as it further developed its functions expanded – a fan was often used as a companion to the social elite, and a fan received all kinds of artistic decorations since then.

Fan Painting, Rice Paper Fan, Fiona Sheng

In the older days people used feather to make fans, which is why the character of fan “扇” has this part “羽” (feather) inside, carrying the meaning of feather until today. People believed that the wind generated by a fan is soft and therefore not harmful to the body. Even until today quite a few people still prefer a fan to cool themselves down instead of air-conditioning. The handle of a fan often utilised bamboo or wood, and at times bones. Reed leaves can be used to weave fans too, in fact they were well received from the emperors to the civilians.

Feather fan, photo from the internet

In the East Han Dynasty (25-220) the fan making developed, and silk started to appear as the main fabric of a fan. These fans have circular shape, their names also reflect this feature: moon-shape fans. These rather round fans provided a perfect surface for artistic creation, the fan art as a tradition lasted until today. The very first fan art appeared in the Three Kingdom (220-280) period, the story told of an elderly lady went seeking for calligraphy writing from a great artist named Wang Xi Zhi, who accepted to write over the fan presented to him. This fan then changed hands and was worth many times more than its original cost. The location where the writing took place still carries the name related to this event! The silk fans were mostly used in the palaces however, therefore they were also referred to as the “palace fans”.

Song Dynasty, art over a circular fan

The Song Dynasty nurtured the most glorious oriental art, where various shaped fans received individual names, and exclusive fan shops and fan merchants started to appear. It was also in this period of time that the foldable fans were invented. This paved the foundation of the later periods, in the Ming and Qing Dynasties fans became representatives of class and taste. A fan with inking from famous artists already became collector’s items, and their market prices could reach millions.

Fan Art, Zhang Da Qian

But, how does a fan act an integral part of the oriental culture? Firstly, with thousands of years of development, fans contain in themselves much history, these historical stories also paved the foundation of the nation; Secondly, on the surface of the fans we could “see” history, the paintings, the poetry, each tell us something special that happened, the fan became a concentrated form of time; In addition, fans were also used on stage by actors to demonstrate a person’s characteristic, and fan operas have always remained popular; Last but not least, fans since Tang Dynasty have been used as a key cultural item for international diplomacy. The Tang emperors sent out fans to initiate and reenforce international friendship, and the neighbouring countries often warmly welcomed these precious gifts. Even in our modern society during the Dragon Boat Festival, some regions in China continued with the tradition of offering a fan to the loved ones.

So, if you need have troubles deciding what to give as an elegant home-made gift, keep a nicely painted fan in mind!

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

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