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The Artistic Value and History of Traditional Chinese Folding Fans

Published: December 4, 2021
Silk satin leaf folding fan with silk embroidery, ivory sticks, silver metallic loop, mother-of-pearl button, silk and gold metallic tassel. (Image: Costume and Textiles via Folding Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

The hand fan has evolved through China’s long history, with artistic decoration often contributing to the value and beauty of the accessory. The earliest recorded painted hand fan (書畫扇 shuhua shan) dates back to the 4th century, when calligraphers and ink wash painters made their works of art on hand fans with ink brushes (毛筆 maobi). Traditional Chinese folding fans became popular centuries later, and were used as a form of artistic expression.

The first person recorded writing calligraphy on the traditional Chinese fan was Wang Xizhi (王羲之), a sage of Calligraphy who lived from 303–361. One of his most famous calligraphic works is Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion (蘭亭集序 Lanting Ji xu).

Wang’s piece refers to an event in 353 CE, where he and  41 other literati or poets present at the occasion composed dozens of poems while entertaining themselves with the wine along a river in Lanting, Kuaji Prefecture, where Wang was governor. 

They held a Spring Purification Ceremony along the bank of the river. A drinking and poem-composing contest ensued, where cups of wine were floated on the water, and anyone who had a cup stop in front of him was to either drink the wine or compose a poem. In total 37 poems were collected, written by 26 literati. 

Later, in the 17th century, it became popular among emperors, palace scholars, and officials to paint and write calligraphy on the newer folding fans. Gifting artistic folding fans became a trend in the imperial palace. 

A unique form of art

The Sui Dynasty was pivotal in Chinese history. It united China after the age of political chaos and civil wars, which had split the country into different short-lived dynasties from 420 to 589 AD.

Conquering the nomadic dynasties, the Sui merged China’s nomadic cultures with the Huaxia culture and laid an essential foundation for the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), one of China’s grandest eras. 

The folding fan was first introduced to China from Japan after the 10th century. With its arched surface wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, the unique form of the folding fan gradually caught the attention of painters and calligraphers who used it for artistic expression. 

In the 14th century, the Ming’s first emperor gifted the Japanese tribute, folding fans, to the palace officials in the early Ming dynasty. Later, the Yongle Emperor (永樂大帝, 1360 – 1424) praised the folding fan for its convenience and flexibility. 

Folding fans inscribed with poems or messages were popular gifts among the nobility. (Imagea: Wang Duo via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Palace officials were gifted personally calligraphed folding fans during one of the most important traditional Chinese festivals, the Dragon Boat Festival (端午節 Duanwujie), a custom originating during the Ming dynasty that continues to this day. 

These folding fans became a traditional gift among officials in the palace, who began to bring fans with them to write on.

Folding fans painted by emperors

At the early phase of the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, it became a trend for the emperors and palace officials to make paintings and calligraphies on folding fans.

The folding fan with paintings or calligraphies made by emperors were priceless gifts for palace officials. Most of the preserved folding fans painted  by emperors are from the 17th century. 

Bird-and-Flower Painting from the Imperial Brush (御筆花鳥 Yubi Huaniao),  is a rare legacy painted by Emperor Xuanzong (宣宗 1399-1435).  Two birds are depicted among camellia blossoms on a gold painted paper fan. 

Custom of gifting folding fans in the palace

Most of the surviving folding fans painted by emperors are works from China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty.

Emperor Kangxi was the third emperor of the Qing dynasty, and the longest reigning emperor in China’s history. He was an accomplished calligrapher and a wise ruler. (Image: Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

The Kangxi Emperor (康熙大帝 1654-1722), considered one of China’s most extraordinary emperors, loved calligraphy. He gifted folding fans inscribed with his imperial calligraphy to officials. He also asked scholars from Hanlin Academy, an academic and national institution of higher learning, to submit folding fans with paintings and calligraphies. 

During the reign of Emperor Qianlong (乾隆皇帝 1711-1799), the emperor and his palace officials made an abundance of painting and calligraphy works on folding fans. They also spent much effort collecting, repairing, and remounting the old fans in the palace. 

Yang’s Ode on Attaining the Isles of Immortality (仿仇英筆意樓閣 fang chouying bi  yi louge) was commissioned by the emperor to imitate the work of renowned painter Qiu Ying (仇英 1494-1552) of the previous (Ming) dynasty. This painting uses refined brush technique to depict palace architecture and landscapes adorned with blue-and-green colors on gold paper, giving an air of elegance and opulent beauty. 

Chinese folding fans are a tangible way for anyone to enjoy traditional Chinese culture. They are readily available to purchase as gifts, and can also be a fun craft for children, especially around Chinese New Year.