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Chinese Fans

An Introduction to Chinese Fans

Today you may rarely see anyone using traditional fans to keep cool. At home, Fans seem to have given way to electric fans and air-conditioners. However beyond their practical use, they are still used as artistic props in plays, dances and storytelling. The fine craftsmanship that goes into the making of fans also guarantees their place as art work in homes and public places.

The origin and history
No one knows exactly how fans were invented in China. The invention or rather the discovery of the fanning function could have been as accidental as follows: a primitive man irritated with lots of flies and mosquitoes, picks up a big leaf off a plant next to him to drive the pests away. To his delight, his effort resulted in cooling air movements.   

Before long, fans acquired ceremonial significance. More than 3,000 years ago, fans were made with bird's feathers and were an outstanding characteristic in imperial pomp. They lent infinite gracefulness and charm to court dancers, who achieved the appearance of heavenly phoenixes. Along with the progress made in agriculture in the Han and Tang Dynasties, an ample supply of clothing material resulted. The fan became popular during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) when the simple bamboo fan and the cattail-leaf fans were invented. These fans were most popular among the common people during the Song Dynasty (420-479).

Silk and satin fans appeared and it became a fashion among scholars and artists to show their genius by writing and painting on fan surfaces. Fans soon acquired considerable social significance.  It was not only used as a tool to keep cool in the summer period. The Chinese also used it in the cooler seasons to express their characteristics and moods, or just to make a fashion statement. For aristocratic young women, fans made from silk or other precious cloth were a kind of prop to show off grace and beauty. Whenever they met a strange man, they would use their fans to hide their faces. Therefore the fans used by women also have another name-"Zhang mian" which means, "Hiding face."

Round fans were first seen in China and remained the main shape of fans until the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279 A. D.). Folding fans were invented by the Japanese. Introduced into China through Korea in the 11th century, they quickly gained popularity in China thereafter. They were usually made with fine paper mounted on bamboo.

Fans gradually became to have attachments, such as fan bags, fan pendants and fan boxes. Fans also spread to other countries in the world, especially to Europe, becoming "emissaries" for Chinese culture.

A great variety of fans have been produced in China. Sandalwood, ivory, even gold, silver and jade have been used as material.

The sandalwood fan has particular interest. Its most outstanding characteristic is the pleasant, fragrant scent that comes from the wood. Even in modern air-conditioned environment, it will certainly enhance the elegance and femininity of the lady holding it gracefully in her hand. It emits subtle fragrance which is as enchanting and refreshing as any expensive perfume. 

Palm fans which have been widely used by the Chinese people were made in the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD). They are very useful and welcomed by people of less expensive taste.

Today, there are over 500 kinds of fans in China, of which the sandalwood fan from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, the damask silk fan from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, the fire-painting fan from Guangdong

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