Drachen Foundation Newsletter: July 2006

Featured Archive Item: 1890s Korean Kites

Korean Kites-Antique to Antic at The Drachen Foundation

The historical record of kites in Korea dates back to the seventh-century Silla Dynasty, when General Gim Yu-Sin is said to have used a fireball-carrying kite to simulate a star. The general's troops, whose confidence had been shaken by the bad omen of a falling star, saw what they thought was the star shooting back to heaven. They rallied and defeated the enemy. Among sources that recount this legend is The Survey of Korean Kites by Ch'oe Sang-Su, president of the Korean Folklore Society, published in 1958 as the first in a "Korean Folklore Studies Series." The Chinese-Japanese Library of Harvard-Yenching Institute at Harvard University holds an original copy of the publication; the DF Archive holds a photocopy. The archive is also adding, at the suggestion of kite historian Bob White, an edition (reissued by Dover in 1991) of Stewart Culin's Korean Games with Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan, first published in 1895. 

But what Korean kites does the archive hold? Because of an unexpected and delightful gift in 2000, The Drachen Foundation may hold the oldest specimens of Korean kites extant. DF Board president, Scott Skinner, describes how the fifteen kites, all more than a hundred years old, made their way to Drachen. "The kites were originally bought by or given to Georges Lefevre, French consul to the Orient in the 1890s. They passed within his family to his great-grandchildren, one of whom was Docteur François Fourrière, formerly president of a French kite club. Fourrière was unsure of what to do with these fragile artifacts, and was encouraged by members of Zoone Collectif to gift them to the Foundation. Ramlel Tien and Christophe Cheret helped make the exchange complete at the Art Kite Festival in Detmold, Germany."

Not content with this historic trove, which is still in remarkable condition, with bamboo spars largely intact and paper sails strong and flexible, The Drachen Foundation has also been pursuing contemporary examples of traditional Korean kites. Doing so has not been easy. Executive Director Ali Fujino says, "It's very difficult to get accurate information or access, given the language barriers. We don't speak Korean, and few Korean kite makers speak English." But recently, through the good offices of DF friend Orly Ongkingco of the Philippines, the archive secured ten traditional bangpae yeon, painted in bright colors. Ongkingco knew that Drachen had been searching for accurate replicas of traditional designs. When he was in Korea for a festival, he commissioned the set from a Mr. Shin. The construction is of high quality and the colors conform to those of traditional signal kites.

Korean kites have been much on Drachen's mind this year. It commissioned from kite artist and designer Greg Kono a Korean-style fighter to use in classroom projects for intermediate and middle-school students reading Linda Sue Park's The Kite Fighters, a story set in fifteenth-century Korea during a New Year kite competition. Drachen asked for a design not too remote from the traditional bangpae yeon but also suitable to the construction skills of young students. Drachen has tested the design in two school settings and plans to release a kit by the end of 2006. Kono adapted the same design when tapped by representatives of the Han Woo-Ri Festival, an event aimed at the Korean-American population of the Puget Sound region in Washington State, to construct twenty bangpae yeon to adorn the display tent. 

Kono's design also helped Drachen respond to a request from an unusual source-MTV. One of its participants in "Next" (a reality speed dating contest) was to be a Marine who spoke Korean. Show organizers had decided that an idiosyncratic and surefire way for him to "get the girl" was to fly a Korean fighter kite. Fujino asked how long the contestant could spend learning to fly the kite. "Oh, at least an hour," said the producer. Fujino convinced him that these tricky high-fliers deserve more respect, that rather than flop as a flier, our Marine should decorate a kite with his prospective date, then soulfully inscribe something romantic on its tail. Two Kono Korean fighters were duly dispatched to Santa Monica. 

Scott Skinner's comments about The Drachen Foundation's holding of Korean kites appeared originally in the Drachen Foundation Kite Journal, issue 7 (summer 2001), and are emended here, with additional information that has come to light since first publication. See the entire article online here.


Kite Sailing Symposium

Register now (only $20 for three days) to join Peter Lynn, Dave Culp, Anne Quéméré (kite sailing solo across the Atlantic), Peter Lynn, Jr., and Wubbo Ockels (Kite Technology, Delft University of Technology), among others, in Seattle, September 28-30, 2006.


News for Educators

Mary Yoshimi's Japanese paper Sode joins other simple paper kite designs available through the DF Online Store. It comes in a ten-pack kit, complete with bamboo spars, line, and winders.


Meet Walter Diem

In May The Drachen Foundation welcomed Walter Diem, who had reserved time at the Study Center during an independent research trip to Seattle. Diem spent several days consulting the archive and discussing with DF Executive Director Ali Fujino "very valuable" contacts for volume two of his Drachen mit Geschichte: Historische Modelle zum Selberbauen. Diem anticipates descriptions and plans of historic kites by, among others, Eddy, Woglom, Conyne, Hargrave (plans published in Australia but not in western Europe or the USA), and Steiff (photographs of his experiments with many kites other than the Roloplan). 

As with the first volume (available now through the DF Online Store), Diem will research and write, and Werner Schmidt will construct the kites. This second volume will also be a "book on demand," available through a few kite stores, some book stores, and at kite festivals, but sold primarily through word of mouth, an effective if occasionally contentious channel for Diem. When he first met the historical kite maker, Falk Hilsenbek, Diem recalls, "he congratulated me on Geshichte, then immediately began pointing out all the errors."

While at the Study Center Diem also sought out additions for a new edition of his kite bibliography, Drachen-Literatur, which he intends to finish by the end of the year. He found primarily books in Japanese, which he will annotate with phonetic translations of titles. He was mildly disappointed not to find half a dozen recent books, for which he already has bibliographical information but was looking forward to holding in his hands (the titles may be purchased in future).

For all his industry, Diem is not especially sanguine about the current kite "scene." Ten or fifteen years ago, he says, interest was generally more robust, not limited to kiteboarders. Now the amount of shelf space in bookstores devoted to DIY kite making has "collapsed." In Germany, he says, there is an "emphatic crowd of older men" interested in historical kites, but kites are not part of the school curriculum nor are many kites displayed in museums.