The Strange and Violent History of Kites

Much more than a plaything, the kite has a history replete with calamity and misfortune

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“Mitsui Shop at Surugacho in Edo,” by Katsushika Hokusai (1831). In the East, the kite was viewed as a means of direct communication with the gods.
“Mitsui Shop at Surugacho in Edo,” by Katsushika Hokusai (1831). In the East, the kite was viewed as a means of direct communication with the gods.Credit: Buyenlarge / Getty Images IL
Noa Manheim

General Han Xin stood at the edge of his military camp and cast his gaze toward the palace to which his forces were laying siege. A commoner who had risen to distinction through the support of Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Western Han dynasty, Han Xin played a decisive role in the battles that established the dynasty’s dominance in early-2nd century B.C.E. China. It was said that he was a clever and cunning commander, who was able to find creative solutions to intricate strategic problems.

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The challenge facing him that day was by all means intricate: how to calculate the exact distance between his camp and the fortified palace, without exposing his soldiers to the arrows of the forces besieged within. The solution he devised was ingenious: He ordered that a kite be prepared from materials available to his men – bamboo poles, hollow and light; sheer silk fabric and strings made of the same airy material. The kite was launched in the direction of the fortress, and with the help of its tail string, whose length was known, Han Xin could calculate the distance to the palace. With that information, his soldiers were able to dig a tunnel toward the objective, and then conquer it in a surprise raid.

Although Han Xin has gone down as one of the five greatest heroes of the dynasty, credit for invention of the kite cannot be attributed to him. Most scholars agree that the source of the ancient aeronautic contraption is indeed China, or somewhere nearby, but the circumstances surrounding its birth remain obscure. Did it begin with a sailor whose ship’s mast and sail were ripped off and sent flying in a storm? Or perhaps a member of the royal court who saw the flag of his kingdom waving in the wind was inspired to construct such an apparatus?

In any event, it emerges that the kite was a prehistoric invention that spanned oceans and continents. Archaeologists and anthropologists have noted the frequent use of sacred kites and their ceremonial role throughout Polynesia – along with similarities between legends relating to their tails in these same islands and other stories in Southeast Asia – to prove the theory that kites share the same origin. This theory was recently reinforced by DNA testing conducted on a 3,000-year-old burial site in the Vanuatu Islands.

Since war is a prehistoric invention, too, it is no wonder that military commanders from ancient times to the present have made use of kites in combat missions. In his book “The Prehistory of Aviation,” Berthold Laufer notes that Han Xin was in the practice of sending up kites with whistles attached to their tails in the direction of enemy bases, under cover of darkness, so that the terror-inducing noises emitted en route would induce panic among the soldiers and make them think the heavens themselves were battling them with wind and sound.

Palestinians fly a kite loaded with flammable material to be thrown at the Israeli side, near the Israel-Gaza border in the central Gaza Strip, June 4, 2018.
Palestinians fly a kite loaded with flammable material to be thrown at the Israeli side, near the Israel-Gaza border in the central Gaza Strip, June 4, 2018. Credit: \ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

In his book “A Short History of Kites,” Paul Wonning writes about the 17th-century Thai king Phra Phetracha, who tied barrels of gunpowder to kites and launched the world’s first airborne sorties of incendiary bombs. In “Samguk Sagi,” the 12th-century Korean history book about the country’s Three Kingdoms, a story is told of another general, Gim Yu-sin, who in the year 600 C.E. launched a kite with a burning oil lamp tied to its tail. A shooting star had frightened his superstitious soldiers, who thought it a bad omen, and the fiery kite sent aloft was meant to persuade them that the celestial body had returned to the skies and the danger had been removed.

Sinologist Joseph Needham, who documented the wartime use of kites in a series of books on technology and civilization in China, refers to one instance, in 1232 C.E., when kites were used to drop propaganda leaflets over a prisoner-of-war camp and instigate an uprising.

From the sending of encoded military orders to being a means for carrying incendiary devices, the history of the kite in the East is replete with calamity and misfortune. Its tail, hanging between heaven and earth, was viewed as a means of direct communication with the gods, a direct line between humankind and the supreme forces that control the wind. Its three uses – as military technology, as a toy and as a ceremonial device sent skyward during holidays – involved either carrying the spirits of the dead to the heavens, or the blessings of the gods earthward. They are all interconnected, giving rise to a diverse folklore, a rich mythology and superstitions, such as one widespread in Malaysia, according to which it is forbidden for anyone aside from its owner to touch a kite that has plummeted to earth, lest he be harmed by it.

In this spirit, kite battles are still held in numerous Asian countries, from Japan to India, in which the contestants glue slivers of glass to the tails of their speedy kites, or tie knives to them, so that they can slash the strings of the competitors’ kites. These events possess a decidedly pagan character, to the point where during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, kite fights in the country were banned, with the reason being that they contradicted the laws of Islam.

To new heights

With its migration to the West in the 16th century, the kite shed many of its age-old cultural contexts. As detailed engravings reveal, Dutch travelers encountered kites in 1599 in the Spice Islands in Indonesia, where they were used in fishing, whereas the Portuguese discovered them after arriving to serve as missionaries among the idol worshippers of Japan, as did the British when they sought to conduct trade with the vast Chinese empire.

“Making the Kite,” lithograph by Louis Kurz (1869), based on a painting by William Cogswell. A symbol of innocence as light as the wind.
“Making the Kite,” lithograph by Louis Kurz (1869), based on a painting by William Cogswell. A symbol of innocence as light as the wind. Credit: Library of Congress

Freed of its mythical nuances, the kite flew higher and higher, to the upper reaches of the stratosphere. It was no longer a holy vessel in the hands of priests, or a weapon possessed by the wagers of war, but a device to aid in the service of scientists and inventors, and in one of its most dramatic appearances, to serve as a lightning rod.

Although military applications for kites continued to be found in the West, as well – from the Civil War era in America, during which they were used to send messages beyond enemy lines, to World War I, in which kites carrying bombs were used to thwart aerial attacks – when Europeans looked at a kite, they did not see it as an emissary to or from the gods, but as a tool that could help them to be gods themselves: to know the mysteries of the universe and to fly in the air.

As early as 1749, the Scottish astronomer and naturalist Alexander Wilson carried out an experiment in which a series of kites were set aloft with thermometers on their tails, to determine temperature differences in various layers of the atmosphere. Three years later, Benjamin Franklin risked his life (as well as that of his son, who was holding one of the strings) when, during a storm, he launched a kite, complete with his iron house key hanging off its tail, to study the electrical nature of lightning.

“As soon as any of the thunder-clouds come over the kite,” Franklin wrote in a report sent to the Royal Society, in which he instructed the respected gentlemen as to how to recreate his success, “the pointed wire will draw the electric fire from them; and the kite, with all the twine, will be electrified.”

Nevertheless, in a book published in 2003, historian Tom Tucker refuted the authenticity of that experiment, claiming that Franklin’s greatest invention was in fact the story itself, which never happened. However, a spokeswoman for the Royal Society, allayed fears that Franklin’s membership in the esteemed organization would now be revoked, “since the noted scientist is no longer among the living, and can therefore no longer defend himself.”

As opposed to Franklin’s flight of fancy, no one denies the veracity of results of aeronautical trials conducted with kites that could carry people aloft in the early 19th century by the grandfather of modern aviation, Sir George Cayley. Although there had been stories of such kites as means for human flight, they belonged to the twilight of an earlier era, such as that of the Japanese thief Kakinoki Kinsuke, who used such a device in 1712 to fly to the Nagoya fortress and steal the gold scales of the dolphins that ornamented its roof. Cayley himself, a wealthy baronet, did not need gold or silver creations, and invested much of his capital in his inventions. In 1809, he succeeded in fashioning and navigating a manned glider. One century later, the aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright said that Cayley “carried the science of flight to a point which it had never reached before and which it scarcely reached again during the last century.”

A kernel of lunacy

When Pamela Lyndon Travers had her charming governess Mary Poppins land on the wing of a kite, in a moment that transitions into the final scene of the Walt Disney film based on her stories – where everyone breaks into the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” as proof that the family that plays together stays together – it may have seemed as if the combat role of the kite was a thing of the past; that science had exhausted itself of all of these possibilities and that it was time once and for all to launch the kite into the kingdom of harmless toys. From a device that has the power to sow fear, to tip the balance of battles and to penetrate the enigmas of creation, the kite was exiled exclusively to the provinces of childhood, a symbol of innocence as light as the wind that carries it higher and higher.

Nevertheless, an innocent amusement in the hands of one person can still become a powerful weapon in the hands of another, and at times the innocence itself is the weapon, as portrayed body and soul by Ambrose Fleury, the uncle of Ludo, the hero of the Romain Gary novel “The Kites,” who uses his hobby to launch a subversive protest into the apathetic skies of the Nazi occupation of France. “Obviously, a man who’s dedicated his entire life to kites,” Ambrose explains to his nephew, “is a bit touched. But really, that’s a matter of interpretation. Some say it’s touched in the head, some say it’s touched by a sacred spark. It can be hard to tell the difference. But if you really love somebody, give them everything you have... and don’t worry about the rest” (translation by Miranda Richmond Mouillot).

The kites of Uncle Ambrose took off not in spite of the opposition of the occupier, but because of it. This principle is summed up in the statement attributed to Winston Churchill and to Louis Mumford and many others, as well – and perhaps its source can be found in the land that brought us the kite: “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.”

That’s a lesson that should perhaps be considered before anyone attempts to use huge fans to counter the threat of airborne kites.