Fei: A Master in Kite Making

A lot of people know that Cao Xueqin (1715-1764) of the Qing Dynasty wrote the novel A Dream of Red Mansions, which tells the romantic and tragic love story of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu, but few of them know that Cao was also an expert of kite making and wrote the book The Guidebook of Kite Making. If I hadn't happened to make friend with Fei Baoling, the only exponent of Cao's kite school, I would never have known it, either.

Fei, 74, lives in a small and clean yard with his retired wife, Xu Juying, 68, in Beijing. His wife looks quite young and fit. With glasses on her nose, she was knitting a sweater for her husband. Also, she helped him a lot in making kites in the past years.

Fei Baoling came across Cao Xueqin's school of kite making accidentally and later developed it to a new stage. In 1963, when Fei was 36, he had an operation and two thirds of his stomach were cut out. During the recovery period, he, as a kite fan ever since the childhood, often went to the Tian'anmen Square to fly a kite he had made.

There, he met Kong Xiangze, who had a pencil-written copy of The Guidebook of Kite Making. Seeing his kite, Mr. Kong asked him, "Have you ever read books telling you how to make kite or did anyone else teach you how to make a kite in this way?"

"Why, is there anything wrong with my kite?" "No, nothing is wrong. But the style of your kite did look like Cao Xueqin's," said Kong. "Cao Xueqin? Did he make kites, too? I only know that he is famous for the novel, but I made them all by myself. If you came to my house, I could show you more kites like this," answered Fei.

"So you mean you are a genius," Mr. Kong joked. "My father's grandpa got a book with kite diagrams written by Cao Xueqin. If you have any interest in it, I can show you the book," said Kong.

Of course, Fei wouldn't say "No" to such a chance. The book, published two hundreds years ago, provided details of traditional Chinese kite making skill.

As Fei studied the book, he found the purpose of Cao Xueqin in writing this book was to help his poor friend, Yu Shude, and other others. Although Cao himself lived a hard life, he determined to help Yu to overcome his terrible situation. Yu Shude knew that Cao was a wonderful kite-maker, so he asked Cao to make several model kites for him to follow the style and sell them for a living.

A year later, Yu visited Cao again. This year, the news was good: Cao Xueqin's kites sold well and Yu's family had plenty to eat. Cao Xueqin was delighted with his good fortune. "The basic way to help people is teaching them the skill to make a living rather than helping them with money," said Cao Xueqin.

He decided to write a book about kite making. Though Fei Baoling needn't to support his family by selling kites, he regarded it his duty to let the world know the art of this business.

Swallow was the main figure used by Cao Xueqin in his kite making guidebook. Cao used this to personify the beautiful life and eternity, even love. In the book, there are as many as 400 types of swallow kites in various sizes.

"It preceded Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or other Disney's cartoon figures by at least 150 years," said Fei. However the book was written in ancient Chinese writing and Fei felt difficult to understand the words.

As he studied it further more, he found the copy incomplete with some versified formulas and pictures being missing. So he decided to write a complete book on the basis of this guidebook. When he made up his mind, he resigned his position in the People's Bank of China, a position sought by lots of people, and established the Association of Kite Making in 1981 in Beijing for his research work.

From then on, he read lots of works related to kite making, life records about Cao Xueqin, A Dream of Red Mansions, and other related literature monographs. After 10 years of collecting, researching and editing, the book was finished. But no publishing house in the mainland was willing to print it. At that time he had spent all his savings in writing the book and he could not seek financial support from his relatives - the family coffers were empty, too!

Why couldn't he seek a cooperative partner overseas? At last a Taiwan publishing house, Hansheng Publishing House, agreed to print his painstaking effort.

Though he spent a lot of time in writing the book, Fei still found chance to make kites and fly them in the limited spare time. The kites made by him can be divided into two types: One is for collection and the other for flying. For collection, the material needn't be flexible and strong enough to resist the air-tension. While for playing, it must meet the axiom of aeromechanics and be big enough.

Fei has won a worldwide reputation for his craftsmanship. He had been invited to exhibit his works in New York for the UN's International Children's Year in 1979, and join in the People and Nature Exhibition 1981 held in Montreal. He also successfully organized kite touring shows in European countries. People there were excited with the Chinese kites and the stories behind each of them.

Fei's kites made quick markets during his round trip in the US, Canada and Europe. These kites vary in size: from those as big as a human adult to the smallest no bigger than a hand. Up to date, foreign visitors are still keen for his kites and make contact through channels like Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) to buy his models.

Of course, his kite has brought some unexpected fortune for him, but I found worries in his face, even when he recalled the time of his learning and making research for the book - the time he regarded as the most fruitful and meaningful in his life.

"What makes you look so unhappy?

"I have two sons, but neither of them is willing to learn kite making. There are some kite fans who call me teacher, but they have no intention to master the art of this craft. I am the only person that knows how to make Cao's kite in the world and my number is up. Who can inherit this after my death?"

"Can we learn from your book?" "I don't think so. Even the book, which contains the quintessence of our culture, can only be seen in Taiwan. We can hardly find copies in the mainland. Maybe in Hong Kong and Macao, you can see several of them. What's more, there are stories behind each type of the swallow kite. People may not understand it if nobody explains that to them."

"I am trying to make as many kites as I can for our descendants. But I am losing my eyesight and I can't make those kites of matchbox size anymore," said Fei Baoling. "I hope there is someone who can set up a kite factory and I will teach them to make Cao's kite. I can assure that there is no risk and this business can really bring fortune to him!"

(www.china.org.cn by Liu Wenlong 05/18/2001)

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