- 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
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.
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.
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
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