Delv­ing into the his­tory of fans and um­brel­las

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By RAYMONDZHOU

A re­cent visit to the China Fans Mu­seum and the China Um­brel­lasMu­seum ig­nited a spark in me about the na­ture of these two tra­di­tional hand­held items. Fans are to keep one cool and um­brel­las to pre­vent one from get­ting­wet.

But para­sols usu­ally pro­vide shel­ter from the sun rather than the rain.

An­cient Chi­nese scroll paint­ings too de­pict fans as be­ing used for the same pur­pose.

In­my­home­town, less than an hour’s drive from Hangzhou, the words for fan and um­brella are sim­i­lar.

The two mu­se­ums, sit­u­ated in Hangzhou’s Grand Canal Plaza, are home to a treasure-trove of his­tory and tid­bits about the two items that many take for granted.

I learned at the mu­seum that fold­able fans came from Ja­pan — though this is dis­puted by some schol­ars — while the flat fan went the other way.

As for the col­lapsi­ble um­brella, the ear­li­est ref­er­ences are from AD 21 when Wang Mang, a Western Han Dy­nasty (206 BC-AD 24) of­fi­cial who seized the throne, had one de­signed for a cer­e­mo­nial four-wheeled car­riage.

But one need not visit a mu­seum to know that fans and um­brel­las are much more than func­tional items.

Dur­ing the South­ern Song Dy­nasty (1127-1279), when Hangzhou was the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, fan­swereapop­u­largift item among the literati, who would in­scribe lines of verses on them — very much like mod­ern-day po­ets who share lim­er­ick­sonso­cial me­dia.

While the fan dance is a sta­ple all across China, the um­brella is sometimes used in mar­tial arts movies, the lat­est ex­am­ple be­ing the very Bri­tish film Kings­man: The Se­cret Ser­vice, in which Colin Firth’s char­ac­ter ex­e­cutes a brilliant fight scene with a black um­brella.

Talk about cul­tural crosspol­li­na­tion.

InHongKong­movies, even the fan can be a lethal weapon.

In the old days there were many work­shops and man­u­fac­tur­ers in­Hangzhouan­dits vicin­ity that spe­cial­ized in the two items.

When I was a child, ev­ery household had at least one oil­pa­per um­brella.

How­ever, inthe1980swhen the um­brella with a re­tractable pole crossed the Tai­wan Straits, it was such a hot item of fash­ion and con­ve­nience that it quickly re­placed the older type of um­brella.

I was even com­mis­sioned to buy two dozen um­brel­las when I re­turned from one Guangzhou trip. I then felt as if Iwastraf­fick­ing a sym­bol of in­no­va­tion.

Three decades later, that kind of um­brella is so cheap and com­mon­place while the oil­pa­per one has al­most be­come a her­itage item.

Like­wise, the fan has not been to­tally re­placed by power-driven ameni­ties. There is some­thing about a fan that opens to a drawingand­cal­lig­ra­phy. It can never be matched by the elec­tric fan or the air con­di­tioner.

RAY­MOND ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

This kind of long-han­dled fans were pop­u­lar with roy­al­ties of an­cient China.

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