Chinese Fans—More than Cool
The ancients of ancient China once anciently said: "Fans are the essence of cooling, and cooling is the essence of life." At least, that's what they could've said. With fans almost as omnipresent as clothing and indispensable as food, ancient Chinese people depended on fans to survive. But how? Why? And, most importantly, really?
It is difficult to measure the fantastic and immeasurable impact of the fan through our current mindset. We must venture to the past and seek the peak of its multifaceted glory. We must journey to ancient China.
But before we hop in the DeLorean, let’s first define what a "fan" is. The iPhone dictionary app defines the fan as an apparatus with rotating blades (not the one we’re talking about), or a device typically folding and semicircular, which creates a current of air for cooling. Sounds definitive enough. However, despite the vast majority of fans being used in said fashion today, the Chinese found many novel applications. So strap on those seat belts and fire up that flux capacitor, we’re heading back to the future! Errr I mean past! Great Scott!
Fans as Canvases
From water paintings of lotus blossoms to calligraphy, fans were the paper of the past. Back when the artistic fan was invented, around the 2nd century B.C., conventional painting canvases were yet to be discovered, and Chinese often used bamboo fans as objects of artistic expression. These nifty contraptions were totally trendy, portable, and doubly functional as regular fans.
Equally common was the poetic fan, which many poets, upon receiving sudden inspiration, would scribble their strokes of genius onto. These poets often carried many blank fans on their frequent imagination-probing journeys, seeking insights and revelations in foreign cities and distant mountains. When reciting a poem, a Chinese scholar could typically be seen swaying and waving his fan in admiration of lyrical pulchritude.
Fans as Weapons
Much like the ideal ancient Chinese man, both learned and proficient in martial arts (文武雙全), there existed kung fu fans (kung fans for short). At a time when swords, spears, and tigers were readily available, these kung fans were surprisingly the weapons of choice for many warriors, including the famed imperial guards of the Qing Dynasty (a Shen Yun fan favorite dance this year!). Typically made of sturdy steel, the kung fan was firm and durable when closed and lethally sharp and deadly when open.
While kung fans were mostly used in close range hand-to-hand combat, smaller fans could also be used as projectiles, causing splash damage when opening before impact. They also provided a much-needed breeze in the heat of battle.
The kung fan was equally befitting the stealthier mercenary, its commonplace usage a convenient disguise. Already a great weapon in its own right, small knives or poison darts could also be hidden within the fan’s individual blades, supplying the aspiring assassin an array of deadly options.
This is ironically symbolic. In ancient times, fans were customarily given as parting gifts between friends or lovers and, apparently, between enemies as well.
Of course, fans had many other applications. They were used to indicate social status, swat insects, punish mischievous children, cut steak and meat, and as napping eye masks. But there’s one more significant use worth mentioning.
Fans as Props
The most glamorous of all fans are those that fulfill their function on stage: the prop fans. The fan is no stranger to show biz—many cultures have historically engaged in some form of fan-related performance. While other types of fans faded with the passage of time, prop fans have weathered super sedation to continue to enjoy their lavish thespian lives today.
In the world of theater, prop fans have maintained a steady level of usage, with Shen Yun being their most avid client. Our prop fans come in many shapes, sizes, colors and designs. From the elegant elliptical fans of Manchurian women to the vibrant yellow pairs that unite to form chrysanthemum orbs, from the flowing fans of the water nymphs to the royal fans accompanying the Emperor himself—Shen Yun is the closest you'll get to observing fans in their natural habitat. So if your DeLorean is out of gas, catch Shen Yun instead, and you just might find yourself a fan in no time.
Sound Engineer with Shen Yun's Touring Company
April 21, 2012