Enthusiasts chase sky-high thrills of wind power

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Until you see it with your own eyes, it might be difficult to envision the surreal scenes at a kite festival, which to kite lovers are ordinary encounters.

Chinese cultural elements like Peking Opera masks are popular patterns on kites. CHINA DAILY

Often on a vast expanse of grassland or beach, myriad fantastic and sublime creatures — birds, Chinese dragons, whales, octopuses, and iconic cartoon characters — command the sky and look down upon the attendees. It seems there's nothing human imagination can conjure that cannot take flight.

Many kite festivals also include contests, which are must-see events. Under the skillful maneuvering of virtuosi, different kinds of kites ascend into the heavens and perform jaw-dropping stunts.

There is never a lack of pulse-pounding moments, when sudden wind shifts cause two rival kites to cross paths. But most of the time, thanks to the swift yet elegant control of the flyers, the kites come to terms and return to their own tracks.

While conventionally considered a spring activity in China, for veterans, flying kites is a year-round endeavor.

Gao Zhenying, 66, a kite athlete with Beijing Kite Association, says that she goes to a park near her home almost every morning and flies her kite for two hours, usually a simple, single-line eagle kite that can circle in the sky as long as there's a gentle breeze.

When she retired in 2005, Gao began accompanying her husband, Zhao Shiming, 68, also a veteran athlete, and other kite lovers to take photos for them.

"I quite liked the kites, so after a while, taking photos was not enough, and I was tempted to try my hand at flying one. I began with dual-line triangle kites and immediately liked the feeling," she says.

Usually one person controls one kite, but she soon learned to handle a kite in each hand and draw circles or squares in the sky with them. Later, mastering quad-line stunt kites and traditional kites came equally naturally to her.

Gao's mantra on her social media account, "Fly with joy every day", encapsulates her passion for the sport. Whether it's to a nearby park or a distant holiday destination, the couple often gather with fellow enthusiasts and practice flying in formation, undeterred by chilly weather or strong winds.

One of these experienced flyers, Huang He, 52, has a similar experience to Gao — initially spurred by seeing other kite flyers and wanting to have a try, and then driven to persevere out of genuine passion.

"I first got involved in the late 1990s. Our group of flyers has gained recognition in domestic competitions, but I believe that what truly matters is not technique but persistence," Huang says.

"We're a tight-knit group. We spend more than 300 days flying kites outdoors every year; that's nearly every day, except during adverse weather conditions. It shares similarities with all sports. When you practice enough over a sufficiently long period of time, your skills naturally improve."

Basic skills

In traditional Chinese kite flying contests, it is essential that competitors make their own kites, for visual appeal is part of the scoring criteria, which means that the basic skills of kite making are also required by flyers.

"Kite flying is an activity that combines sport, art and culture, which is what makes it so appealing to me. It is rare for me to find an activity with so many elements that are attractive to me. From making the kite, the whole process enriches me and gives me a sense of achievement. I think it nurtures all-around personal growth," Huang says.

All members of the Beijing Kite Association and also Chinese Kite Association, Gao, Zhao and Huang are frequent contestants at international kite festivals and championships, winning awards with their solo or kite ballet performances. Even so, before each competition, they would tirelessly practice the choreography.

"It's hard to find an ideal time with perfect wind conditions," Gao says. "Sometimes, when there's no wind and I'm anxious to practice coordination, I memorize the movements by heart and imagine myself as the kite, my own movements imitating how the kite should move to the music's rhythm."

As this year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and France, as well as the China-France Year of Culture and Tourism, China was the first-ever guest country of honor at the 37th International Kite Festival in Berck-sur-Mer, France, between April 20 and Sunday, with events organized by the China Cultural Center in Paris and kite-makers from Weifang in Shandong province.

Chinese-inflected cultural activities took place at the festival, including a gigantic dragon-headed centipede kite-flying performance at the opening ceremony, workshops for kite-making techniques by artisans from Weifang, as well as performances and experiential activities such as lion dances, martial arts, performances of traditional Chinese instruments and tea ceremonies.

Liu Hongge, director of the China Cultural Center in Paris, says that the kite is a key image representing the friendship between China and France. In 1958, the two countries produced a film titled Fengzheng (The Kite), which was called Cerf-volant du Bout du Monde in French.

The first color children's film made by the People's Republic of China, and the first coproduced with another country, it tells of the adventures and friendship between Chinese and French children created by a kite.

"As the organizer of guest country activities, the China Cultural Center in Paris continues to leverage the image of kites, using them as a medium to tell stories about kite culture in China and France, foster mutual understanding between peoples, and contribute to the success of the China-France Year of Culture and Tourism," Liu says.

Increasing popularity

Within China, the Chinese Kite Association hosts an annual series of kite festivals and events that attract the participation of a wider and more vibrant group of enthusiasts.

Li Yiyang, 21, is one of the youngest members of the Beijing Kite Association and yet he has taken responsibility as the leader of the association's Team One, and has won awards at multiple contests.

"I've got family members who are into kite flying and who took me along, so I've been fascinated by the sport since childhood. In the past six or seven years, I think I've gained a solid understanding of it," Li says.

"At first, it was just a hobby and a way to get outdoors and exercise, but when I got more involved, I discovered its rich cultural and historical connotations. So I started delving into kites from two main perspectives, their history and their role in competitive sports."

As he pursues his studies, Li flies kites at weekends, and in his spare time learns about them, including how to paint and make kites, as well as doing historical research.

Between traditional and stunt kites, he is more inclined toward the former, especially kites characteristic of Beijing, and has adopted local kite-making techniques and cultural elements.

"To me, the charm of kites lies first in allowing me to go outdoors and get some fresh air. It's beneficial to health and keeping fit. Studying kite-making has also been an opportunity to constantly improve my handcrafting and painting skills," Li says.

"Whenever I attend classes in intangible cultural heritage or discuss with my peers, I try to share what I know about traditional Beijing kites. I hope that more young people in China and around the world will get to know more about kites, their role in traditional Chinese culture and the sportsmanship of flying kites."

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