The Cool Story of Chinese Fans

“Shaken in hand and a cool breeze embraces you,” this is one description of the cooling power of the delicate Chinese fan.

The history of Chinese fan can be dated to over 3,000 years ago, around the Shang Dynasty (C.16th-11th BC). The first type of fan, known as Shanhan, was tied to a horse-drawn carriage to shut out the strong sunshine and shelter the passengers from the rainfall. The Shanhan was a bit like today’s umbrella. Later this Shanhan became a long-handled fan made of thin and tough silk or birds’ feathers, called a zhangshan fan, which was mainly used by the emperor’s honour guard as decoration.

In fact, the fan was not used to help cool people until the Zhou Dynasty, more than 2,000 years ago. At that time, fan was usually made of feathers and called “feather fan,” which was only popular among the noble class. The fan was popularized during the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) when the simple bamboo fan and the cattail-leaf fan were invented. These fans were most popular among the common people during the Song Dynasty (420-479). Around the same period, a silk fan in the shape of the moon, called a “round fan,” became the favorite of young ladies, especially those in the imperial place. Later, this moon-shaped fan took on many other shapes, such as oval flat round, or sometimes the shape of Chinese plum flower or sunflower. Usually, ribs of the fan were made of animal bones, wood or bamboo, while the handle was engraved with beautiful designs and decorated with jade pendants. Beautiful scenes of mountains and waters or flowers were also embroidered on the face of a moon-shaped fan. Deeply loved by young ladies, the round fan was popular in China for nearly 1,000 years. The popularity of the moon-shaped fan even enhanced the development of painting itself. From the Song Dynasty on, fan painting became an independent art form. The typical composition used in fan painting could be seen in many landscape paintings and figure paintings at the time.

When talking about fans today, we usually refer to the exquisite folding fan, which is said to be introduced to China from Japan during the late Song Dynasty. It is rumoured that the Japanese invented the folding fan after being inspired by bat’s wings. As this fan could be easily folded and carried, it soon came into fashion. Compared to other types of fans, the folding fans more like a piece of handicraft. The ribs of folding fans were made from valuable materials, such as hawks-bill turtle, ox horn, ebony, mottled bamboo, elephant trunk, and jadeite, carved into different shapes, for example a grasshopper’s legs. And the different sizes of folding fans are classified by the number of ribs the fan has, usually seven, nine, 12, 14, 16 or 18.

However, the most interesting of a folding fan is usually made of xuan paper or silk and beautifully painted. If a famous artist painted the fan, it could be worth a lot of money. For example, a folding fan painted with running script of Chinese calligraphy by Zhang Daqian, a famous Chinese painter, sold for HK$252,000. And many contemporary painters, like Wu Changshuo, Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong, are known as elite fan-painting artists.

Today, there are over 500 kinds of fans in China, of which the sandalwood fan from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, the damask silk fan from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, the fire-painting fan from Guangdong Province and the bamboo thread fan are known as the four most famous fans of China. Recently, an exhibition of Chinese fans was opened at the Hongbaotang Gallery, located on Antiques Street in Beijing. Through late August, the exhibition will display fans by more than 200 artists across China. During the exhibition, some folding fans will also be for sale, priced from 300 Yuan to 5,000 Yuan. Widely used for thousand years, Chinese fan is still bringing people cool breeze and the scant of brilliant Chinese culture.

(Beijing Weekend 06/19/2001)

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