For anyone who has spent a summer in China, it’s impossible to miss the old couples strolling down the roads, fanning away the sticky heat. Many travelers have picked up a fan or two to beat the heat, or as beautiful souvenirs. But with over two thousand years of history, the Chinese fan isn’t just something that you cool yourself with.
From empresses to the poorest villagers, fans have been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. Archaeologists excavated the oldest known fan in Asia, from 2nd century BC, from the Mawangdui tomb in Hunan province. Made of woven bamboo, they were most likely used by royalty while they traveled outside their palaces.
The original Chinese fan, the circular tuánshàn 团扇, is said to have been modeled after the full moon, and signifies union and happiness. It’s made up of four parts- the handle, the cloth interior, and the two outer guards that hold the cloth in place. Legend says that during the Jin Dynasty, the famous calligrapher Wang Xizhi met an old woman selling fans, and wrote five characters on each fan. The old woman was furious- the man had ruined her fans!- until they sold for triple the price. This was the birth of the art of painted fans, popularized in the Song Dynasty. These fans became so treasured that they were often taken off of their handles and placed in keepsake books.
The symbols on fans are especially important- ladies would often have flowers or birds painted on their fans to symbolize purity and grace, though artists often painted entire scenes depicting children, ancient stories, or scenes of natural beauty. Fans’ subjects were sometimes entire romantic poems, or characters that represent wealth or longevity. Ladies’ fans frequently depicted phoenixes, while men preferred dragons.
Today’s folding fans were originally brought over from Japan during the Ming Dynasty, and became the most popular for many scenic or calligraphic artists.
Among the aristocracy, fans were used to symbolize high status and taste. Ladies would use them as a prop for grace and beauty, while scholars would idly fan themselves to demonstrate their deep thoughts. European ladies adopted fans in the 1600s, and even created a secret seductive language around different ways of holding and waving the fan. Today, the primary users of fans may be sweaty older men with their shirts rolled up and bellies exposed; hardly a picture of grace and intellectualism. Historically, however, using a painted fan has always brought the air of sophistication to an otherwise muggy day.
Fans are also used in Chinese folk dancing, a style creatively known as Fan Dancing, or 扇子舞 (shànziwǔ). Dancers combine synchronized movements and traditional forms with feathered fans to create a graceful performance. Modern dancers have also adapted the fan to their style, though fan dancing is most popular with the plaza-dancing ayi’s.
If beauty isn’t enough, the Chinese decided to give their folding fans a deadly twist. While there’s some debate whether the original War Fan was invented in China or Japan, both countries adopted the steel-edged fans for close combat situations. War fans combined the portability of hand fans, made of iron or wood with heavy ends and razor sharp ribs.
Usually made in the folding fan style, the fan can be used with traditional Kung Fu or as a stealth weapon. The fan dance used in Kung Fu has been adapted to Chinese military training today, where they use other weapons instead of fans, but go through the same movements.
Today, buying a fan can be as simple as picking a stand on the street or finding a specialty shop to buy a well-made fan. The general consensus is that you get what you pay for- buying a 10 kuai fan (e.g. palm fans) would be perfect for short term heat stroke prevention, but for long term souvenirs, investing in a delicious smelling sandalwood fan, bamboo, or tuanshan fan would be worth the added sophistication.
Photo’s Courtesy of Flickr