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CHINESE FANS - The Chinese elevated the common fan to an art form.  We know that leaves and bird feathers were used as early fans but China gets credit for being the first place where fans were manufactured.  King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty (11th century B.C.) is credited as the inventor of the Chinese fan.  We believe that the idea for the hand-held Chinese fan came from the umbrellas that were fixed to the top of carriages of the Shang dynasty period (1600 - 1100 B.C.).  The oldest Chinese hand-held fan, which was found in the Hubei province in 1982 dates back about 2,300 year ago to the Warring States period. 

Early fans were made of bamboo "spokes" arranged in a half circle with silk wrapped around them.  These fans did not fold up, as we know them today.  Fans were primarily reserved for the member of the royal court and it was not until the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) that fans became widely available among the general population.  Fans became so wildly popular that in the Jin dynasty (317 - 420 A.D.) the emperor forbade them to be made out of silk since so many fans were being made that silk production could not keep up!  Chinese fans were made in many different forms.  For example, a fan's base could be square or round, or shaped like a familiar object, for example a duck's beak or fish tail. 

Here is an interesting fact you probably did not know.  The Chinese did not invent the folding version of the fan most commonly known.  This type of fan, or Zhe Shan, was brought to China from Japan in the 11th century.  Today, Chinese fans are made of many materials such as palm tree leaves, bamboo, and paper.  Other materials include bone, feather, ivory, carved lacquer ware, paper, and silk.  Additionally, you will find fans made of precious materials such as mother-of-pearl. 

Chinese fans grew beyond the realm of being ordinary household artifacts as fans became integrated with traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy to become works of art.  Chinese fan culture developed hand in hand with Chinese history until the modernization of the mid twentieth century.  Of the hundreds of fan artisans in historical Shanghai - only two remain today.  The main allure of the Chinese fan today is its value as a collector's item, especially for two types of Chinese fans - the Tuan Shan (reunion fan) and the Zhe Shan (a plaited fan that can be folded). 

Tuan Shan fans are made of silk and can be round as well as square, or rectangular with rounded edges.  They were carried by both men and women until the Ming dynasty when they became identified as a fashion accessory for women.  The Zhe Shan became popular in China during the Ming dynasty, reaching a peak of popularity during the Qing era (1644-1911).  This is the time when the folding fan became known as a symbol of social status.  It was also during this time that the culture of using fan gestures as a way to express moods developed. 

The most valuable examples of Zhe Shan fans are those which are decorated with art and/or calligraphy.  The shape of the fan - narrow at the bottom and wide at the top - made them a challenge for artists to decorate.  One method used by calligraphers was to alternate short and long sentences on the panels of the fan.  That way, the writing did not look crowded or cramped and remained artistically appealing.  Writing was done both horizontally and vertically, depending on the preference of the artist and the patron.   

While art and calligraphy were the main means of decoration, there are examples of fans that have gold or other precious stones added to their faces.  The extra time and effort required to work on this type of medium is why decorated fans are the most prized.  The Qing dynasty was also a time when the Chinese fan was first brought to Europe.  Traders imported fans made of ivory which became popular with European women.  As Chinese Fans grew in popularity, Chinese manufacturers made and exported fans made of a variety of material. 

We are still intrigued by fans today.  They are a great way to cool off to be sure but there is more to it than that.  There is something special about holding a fan.  Maybe it is a reminder of history or that slightly exotic feeling you get when you unfold a fan.  In any case, the Chinese fan is likely to enjoy a timeless popularity.


 

The Great Wall of China The Forbidden City
The Terracotta Army Along the Silk Road
 
Chinese Fans
Gold Leaf Painted ~ 10 Inch Turnip Vase
Gold Leaf Lacquer
Pair of 10 Inch Closionne Vases
Cloisonne
Pair of Brass Foo Dogs
Brass & Bronze
Inside Painted Boxes
 
 

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