Once regarded as a symbol of imperial power in Chinese history, folding fans have slowly emerged from being a possession exclusive to the royal family to becoming a common item during the Mid-Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). At that time, folding fans were an indispensable accessory for the scholar-official community, also known as literati. As they became synonymous with an elegant and refined lifestyle, folding fans were also considered a prime canvas for artists and artisans to showcase their skills.
The history of folding fan art
Two main views among scholars about the origin of Chinese folding fans. Some scholars believe that this art form made its first appearance in China early on, during the Southern and Northern dynasties (420-589), while the other faction insists that it originated from Japan and spread to China in the early years of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).
During the Ming Dynasty, folding fans quickly became popular thanks to the court’s support, as they were considered a symbol of the elegant life. This art form reached its pinnacle in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).
The exchange of a folding fan adorned with pieces of calligraphy and paintings of charming landscapes among close friends among Confucian circles became a popular tradition, especially in the region of Jiangnan, the territory around the Lower Yangtze River, where writers and artists gathered during that period.
By the time of the Republic Era of China (1912-1949), folding fans had become a valuable collector’s item while continuing to maintain its role as a symbol of friendship. The diversity in materials, shapes, and decorative themes reflects a rich and profound culture that has changed through different historical periods.
A wide variety of materials can be used to make fan ribs, including bamboo, sandalwood, ebony, tortoiseshell, ivory, and animal bone, with bamboo being the most popular among them. The use of precious materials not only enhances their beauty but also adds to their value.
At the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republican Era of China, fan heads began to come out in various shapes, such as square, round (also known as monk-head), flat, swallow-tail, oval, or pointed.
The fan manufacturing industry in ancient China was primarily developed by small family-run businesses, usually on a small-scale, with families operating a store in the front of their household and a workshop in the back. Hangzhou City witnessed a flourishing fan manufacturing industry during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).
A carrier of painting and calligraphy of the literati
In ancient China, literati and artists had a peculiar hobby — they enjoyed having their paintings and calligraphy decorating their favorite objects. That is why, once in the hands of literati, folding fans became a carrier of their art and calligraphy. Initially, painting and calligraphy were created on the fan’s panel to decorate, but the fan was later chosen as a carrier for literati and artists’ favorite works and pieces of art.
Folding fans with paintings and calligraphy reached their heyday in the mid-Ming Dynasty. Panel paintings and calligraphy, with their natural, fresh, and lively style, became widely popular among the kingdom, and that is in part thanks to the unique shape of the fan’s folding panel.
Many people at that time felt proud of possessing a folding panel fan adorned with a painting or calligraphy of an acclaimed artist. Folding fans in the Republican Era of China were chosen as gifts to symbolize friendship and goodwill, which are nowadays sought after by collectors also due to their exquisite bamboo ribs.