‘A bird in flight’: A Note on the Ancient Origins of Kites 

Written by Verity Limond

‘With your feet on the ground, you’re a bird in flight/With your fist holding tight/To the string of your kite’ rhymed the lyricist brothers Richard and Robert Sherman in their song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” for the 1964 musical film Mary Poppins.  But having feet on the ground must have been something that the Chinese prisoner said to have been strapped to kites for execution must have wished for. The unfortunate prisoner was launched from a height to die in the eventual fatal crash. The Book of Sui (636 CE), a chronicle of life under the dynasty of the same name (581-618 CE) records that Emperor Wenxuan (r. 550-559 CE) of the earlier Northern Qi dynasty used kites as a means of execution and even took gruesome pleasure in watching the effects. The kites in question are described as having been made of bamboo, but the dynastic chronicle Zizhi Tongjian (1044 CE) suggests they were made of paper. In either case, one prisoner seemingly survived such an execution in 559 CE and landed safely after travelling about 2.5km. Unfortunately, his luck did not secure him his freedom. 

The origins of kite-making and flying are wrapped in legend and superstition, making them somewhat obscure. Typically, kites are flown from a tether on the ground and have been used for a variety of purposes in religious, military, scientific and leisure contexts since they first became widespread in China. Bamboo and silk were the original materials used for frames, flying lines and sail fabrics. These were all readily available in China and were used to make some of the earliest kites in the city of Weifang during the Warring States period (c. 475-221 BCE). Accounts of their early military use in the second century BCE describe kites being flown to carry fireworks, communicate signals, measure distances and, in an early version of what might now be called psychological warfare, to intimidate enemy armies. There is also evidence that early kites were used to assess the weather and send messages, as well as being used to trail baited lines for fishing. 

Kites made of leaves are also recorded from Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia and may have been developed independently, in parallel with their invention in China. But it was presumably from China that the idea of the kite reached Japan, brought by Buddhist missionaries in the seventh century CE, ultimately spreading throughout the Asia-Pacific region.  Elsewhere, traders took them into the Middle East, North Africa and Europe via the Silk Road. While primarily flown for pleasure or as part of religious observances today, kites also have a place in human efforts to achieve sustained flight, as part of an evolution in thought that led from the kite to the hot air balloon and the glider, and eventually to the first powered aircraft. 


China Today. (2018) ‘The Earliest “Aircraft”’. China Today April, 66-69. 

Desai, N. (2010) A Different Freedom: Kite Flying in Western India; Culture and Tradition. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 

Maxwell, E. (n.d.) ‘Kite.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/kite-aeronautics.  

Needham, J. (1965) Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II: Mechanical Engineering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Noor, B. (2021) ‘The Ancient History and Enduring Appeal of Flying a Kite.’ The New York Times Style Magazine, 29 September. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/29/t-magazine/kites-art-history.html.  

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