Blessings from the Pinwheel
According to traditional Chinese culture, pinwheels, also known as jixiang lun (auspicious wheels) or bagua fenglun (trigram wheels), bring about joy and happiness to families.
According to traditional Chinese culture, a pinwheel, also known as jixiang lun (auspicious wheel) or bagua fenglun (trigram wheel), brings about family joy and happiness. The traditional pinwheel looks like a simple toy, but bears the unforgettable childhood memory of Beijing locals and is considered a must-have at the temple fairs.
As described in Dijing jingwulüe (“records of Beijing’s scenery”) of the late Ming Dynasty ( 1368– 1644), a pinwheel is made using two- inch sorghum sticks and red and green paper squares. When the wind blows, the pinwheel spins, mixing both colours like the solar halo and producing a beautiful, chromatic circle.
In Wuxinzhuang Village, Xiji Town, Tongzhou District of Beijing, there lives a family who inherited the national intangible heritage of making pinwheels, an art with hundreds of years of history in China. Liang Jun, 84 years old, started learning how to make pinwheels from his father to grandfather since age ten. He is a third generation craftsman in his family. Today, he has passed down
the skills far this traditional art to his son and is enjoying family life. He would sometimes make children’s toys like toy roosters and tambourines, finding enjoyment in what he does.
As visitors enter the small courtyard of Liang’s house, they are surrounded by gorgeous pinwheels, including the two-wheeled traditional pinwheel, five-wheeled creative pinwheel and 50-wheeled large-scale pinwheel.
Liang explained that the toy pinwheel is unique to China and they are mostly found in Beijing. According to legend, the pinwheel was invented by Jiang Ziya, an ancient Chinese military strategist. One day, a bird with ten heads, responsible for escorting the Queen of Heaven, was beheaded for eating the tribute and sent to the mortal world for repentance. However, it continued to spread evil and Jiang had to deal with and dominate it using the “rod of heaven and earth.” Afterwards, common folk came up with something similar to the “rod of heaven and earth” to dispel evil and pray for auspiciousness, and named it fengche (pinwheel).
The Liang family has always lived in Tongzhou, the place where Liang’s grandfather spent his whole life making pinwheels and kites. He was a well-known figure there. Around Spring Festival each year, Liang’s grandfather would ride a donkey with his beautiful pinwheels, make his way to the temple fairs in Zhangjiawan town and put the pinwheels up for sale. Although Liang’s grandfather would sometimes set up a stall, there were times when he would move about the streets to sell them.
Liang’s father inherited the art of making traditional pinwheels. During the Spring Festival and month of March, Liang’s whole family would make and sell pinwheels and kites together. Most adults would buy a pinwheel for their kids for fun. Gradually, the Liang family’s pinwheels became well-known in Tongzhou.
Making a Name
It has been about 70 years since Liang started learning how to make a pinwheel at ten years old. With his lifetime of experience, he described the skills involved in making pinwheels as “easy to learn, difficult to perfect, hard to innovate.”
“It is easy to pick up the skills of making a traditional pinwheel. As long as one is deft, he would be able to make a pinwheel even without any foundation.” explains Liang. Liang has already mastered the dozens of steps required in making pinwheels. Most of his apprentices started out without any basics. A pinwheel may not be a precise instrument. However, there are particular demands in its structure, size and colour arrangement. Most of the pinwheels sold at temple fairs are easily ruined, but Liang is confident that his pinwheels can last for 30 years. He grows his own red sorghum, a quality material he uses for his pinwheels. After conducting experiments, Liang decided that non-woven fabric is the best choice for storng and goodlooking pinwheels.
Liang didn’t merely develop the skill of making traditional pinwheels but also innovated to give pinwheels a new meaning. Traditional Beijing pinwheels had 10 wheels at most, but Liang created one that has 289 wheels and is at five metres ( m) in height. He also reduced the size of a
10- wheeled pinwheel from 1.5 m to 45 centimetres ( cm). The pinwheels he makes can be so tiny that they can be placed in palms, or so large that they are nearly the size of a bicycle. Liang also had new ideas for the volume of the drum and the sound produced by the drumstick, to perfect his pinwheels.
According to Liang, it’s challenging to make innovative pinwheels since it requires multiple skills. For example, a 300- wheeled pinwheel must be very sturdy and requires carpentry skills for the bamboo. The pinwheel has to be detachable for
easy transportation. This involves mechanical design and sketching. To make Liang’s type of pinwheels, one needs to learn how to make kites. Many people have come from all over to learn how to make pinwheels from him. Yet none of the apprentices could surpass Liang because they didn’t have his special touch or the right skills to make pinwheels.
A pinwheel may be small, but is made using the scientific principles of trigonometry, geometry, weather and power. While inheriting this traditional art, Liang managed to create a gigantic Tongzhou pinwheel with distinctive Beijing flavour, which later became a cultural landmark at Beijing’s temple fairs during Spring Festival and folk festivals. The “gigantic pinwheel” was eventually included in the intangible cultural heritage directories.
A pinwheel may be a toy for children, but there are about forty or fifty steps involved in the process to produce the various parts, including the frame, drum hoop, drum head and wheel.
The first step is to make a clay drum using good quality loess that is tacky and not rigid. In order to find the most suitable clay, Liang visited many places on his bicycle and found a place named Lantayao in Dahuangzhuang, Xianghe County of Hebei province, 30 kilometres from his home. The place fires brick all year round and has good soil texture. He hired people to dig good quality soil from 30 metres below ground to make clay drums.
The soil can’t be used immediately, and is left alone to let air inside the soil disperse, slowly changing its soil texture. Impurities like macadam, splinters of wood and small bamboo sticks are removed. Impurities are filtered and the water in the soil is volatilised to attain delicate clay. To moisten the clay, paper scraps are added. The clay is then moulded into the shape of a drum hoop and left to dry for three to five days.
The drum head used to be made with kraft paper improved from Korea that Liang ordered from Tianjin. The kraft paper is thin, firm and tough. He later discovered that Japan had kraft paper with even better quality and decided to use it even though this would increase production costs. The drum head is made by fitting the kraft paper onto the drum hoop at a certain degree of tightness so that the drum is firm and durable and the sound produced would have vibrato.
The clay drum is the main component of the pinwheel, made up of dozens of handmade parts. The frame is made using red sorghum for appeal and the joints are connected with bamboo nails. Creating the wheels takes the most effort. The bamboo skin is trimmed into strips, soaked in warm water, made into a round shape using a clamping fixture and finally connected to the centre axle to make a 13- cm wheel.
The strip on the pinwheel used to be made with white writing paper made from bamboo, and breaks easily when there’s high wind. Liang decided to use highquality, non-woven fabrics, cutting it into strips 60 cm in length and 16 cm in width and dyeing them red, yellow and green. The strips are soaked thoroughly to ensure that the colours on both sides are equally bright. After being aired to dry, the strips are further trimmed to suitable lengths.
After the coloured strips are ready, the next step is to make the centre of the wheel. A rectangular opening is created at the two cm mark on the five- cm long sorghum stick, so that the coloured strips can pass through. A 13- cm fine bamboo stick is bound to the frame and divided into two circles. The joint is connected using latex. The 12 coloured strips are passed through the opening and glued at a tilted angle to allow for the revolving movement. The parts are eventually attached onto the bamboo sticks and a colourful pinwheel is completed.
The 12 coloured pieces on the upper half of the pinwheel represent the months in a year while the 24 coloured pieces represent the 24 solar terms. The pinwheel is placed on the holder and secured with glue
so that it won’t loosen or detach. The drum is fastened onto the pinwheel while the plectrum and bamboo drum stick are attached with nylon rope.
Beauty in Conception
Pinwheels are commonly seen at temple fairs during Spring Festival.
It is said that when the wind blows and pinwheels spin, happiness and auspiciousness will soon follow. Liang said it is easy to make pinwheels but difficult to give a special meaning to them. For example, the coloured strips each have a different meaning: red represents sunshine, yellow represents Chinese descendents and green represents the natural environment. Together, it signifies people living under the sun in harmony. Liang once made a “289-Pinwheels” for a Hong Kong customer, as it means “let’s get rich together.”
In 2009, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Liang spent three months from the conceptualising to the creating of a 60-wheeled “National Day Pinwheel.” The wheels represent 60 years of time the country has been through while the five flags on the pinwheel represent “five blessings and longevity,” symbolising wishes for national prosperity.
The traditional Beijing pinwheel is bright in colour, makes a quiet sound, spins flexibly and is heard whenever there’s wind. Although it has a traditional appearance, the pinwheel has a unique appeal and reflects the creativity of labourers. None of the components of the pinwheel is worth a lot; sorghum stalks are used as firewood and clay can be obtained anywhere. The only materials that are different on some of the pinwheels today are the Japanese paper and rubber bands, which are sometimes used to replace thread. The pinwheel is altogether low- cost product made from recyclables. However, the pinwheel has its own charm, reminding the elderly of their childhood and is well liked by children today. A child running in the wind with a pinwheel feels more carefree than one using a smartphone or computer. Liang believes that the design of the traditional pinwheel can still be improved. The ten- wheeled pinwheel is too large and not convenient enough for children to play with, so he reduced the blade diameter of the wheel and used iron wire from bicycles to make the wheel and axle, increasing the force of the wind rotor. He also replaced the silk cloth on the pinwheel with 24 coloured strips made of radicular fiber, and further improved the frame and colours of the pinwheel. His well- designed pinwheels spin freely with a resonant sound, looking like flowers flying in the air.
Liang never stopped brainstorming new ideas and created a variety of innovative pinwheels. In 1997, he made many pinwheels with many different numbers of wheels. During a Spring Festival exhibition, he created a display of yifanfengshui ( wishing one success) all with pinwheels. Liang also created pinwheels for other events including Hong Kong’s return to China and 2001‘s successful bid for the Olympics. The famous and celebratory Olmypic logo pinwheel he made reflected his excitement towards the successful bid for the Olympic Games, as a folk artist.
Liang smiled proudly while speaking about the hundreds of thousands of beautiful pinwheels he’s made, saying, “You can hear it even when there’s no wind. And when there’s wind, you hear it constantly. The wind blows and the pinwheel moves, spinning luck and wealth to its owner. This is the unique quality of my pinwheels.”