COLUMBIA — Qian Jianguo holds up a hawk-shaped kite in his cramped living room with low ceilings at University Place Apartments. He lets go, yanks the line, and the hawk takes flight. It makes realistic soars and swoops within the confines of the room and is kept afloat by the centrifugal force generated by Qian taking small, circular backward steps. Finally, the kite hits the ceiling and crashes to the ground.
“If this were a larger space, I could do much more,” Qian said in Mandarin with a regional accent.
KITE MASTER VISIT
7 to 8 p.m. Thursday — Indoor kite flying at Activity and Recreation Center, 1701 W. Ash St.
Noon to 1 p.m. Friday — Kite flying demo at Mel Carnahan Quadrangle at MU.
2 to 5 p.m. Saturday — Kite making workshop at Columbia Art League, 207 S. Ninth St. (Class limited to 30 people. Call 573-808-6307 to register.)
11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sunday – Kite tying and flying demonstrations during One Sky One World, Cosmo-Bethel Park.
He will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills this week in Columbia. Qian and his wife, Lang Fenglian, were invited by the Columbia Friends of China organization to participate in this year’s One Sky One World International Kite Fly for Peace on Sunday at Cosmo-Bethel Park.
Founded in 1986 by Jane Parker-Ambrose, One Sky One World kite flies are held on the second Sunday of each October in more than 35 countries and 100 locations.
“By flying a kite in the same sky, you realize symbolically how we are sharing our same planet,” said Larry Ambrose of One Sky One World in Denver.
Qian and Lang arrived Friday and will be giving flying demonstrations and a kite-making workshop in addition to the main event on Sunday.
Indoor kite flying is just one of Qian’s many specialties. As one of the resident kite masters at the largest kite museum in the world, the Weifang World Kite Museum in China, he also creates and paints kites. He frequently collaborates with his wife, who paints traditional woodcut style historical and mythical figures on the kites.
It is their first time in the United States. Although they don’t speak English, they've had no trouble adjusting.
“There are many of our compatriots living here, and we can buy Chinese groceries at the Hong Kong Market,” Qian said.
“It’s like home,” Lang said.
Their temporary apartment is full of kites. On the bed in one room is a row of about a dozen hand painted three-dimensional hawk kites of various sizes. Qian chooses them depending on the flying style and environmental conditions.
These kites all have a traditional bamboo frame, while the covering may vary from paper to fine silk. The smaller kites can be made in a few hours, while the hawks can take up to three days.
A colorful kite of a praying mantis eating a cicada sits on a dresser.
“This is based on a Chinese proverb: ‘The praying mantis hunts the cicada but doesn’t realize the preying bird behind it,’” Qian said.
Lang sits hunched over a desk by the window, focused on painting ladies-in-waiting. While Qian paints the animal kites himself, Lang is in charge of the cultural decorations. All her paintings are based on ancient Chinese folklore.
“One character, one kite, one story,” Lang said.
She is especially proud of an intricate 4-foot long kite based on the Legend of the Monkey King, which took her more than two weeks to complete.
Columbia’s weather and wind speed this week have been quite similar to their hometown, Qian said. Due to the abundance of trees, it is sometimes difficult to find a suitable place. This is where indoor kite flying, which Qian said is a recent development in China, comes in handy.
“I trained myself in indoor kite flying to be independent from environmental and weather conditions,” he said.
Despite living his entire life in Weifang, the internationally recognized Kite Capital of the World, Qian’s fascination with kites didn’t begin until 10 years ago.
“Besides playing with them as a child, I had nothing to do with kites until I retired,” Qian said.
Graduates of the Weifang Institute of Art and Design, Qian and Lang were busy with their jobs as mechanical and graphic designers. Qian took up kite flying as a hobby after an early retirement at 55.
Despite having to travel far outside the sprawling city to find open space, Qian tried to practice every day.
“One must learn to fly a kite before one can start making them,” he said.
As his passion grew, he started learning from other enthusiasts and eventually began constructing his own kites.
His unique style had caught the attention of the director of the Weifang World Kite Museum in 2004. With only four years of experience, Qian was offered a studio space in the museum. Since then, he has performed regularly in front of large audiences and government leaders and has brought his craft to Japan, Australia and Cambodia.
Qian sums up his kite-flying career with a Chinese proverb: “I unintentionally planted a willow branch, now it has grown into a shade.”
He credits his art and design background as one of the keys to his quick rise to fame.
“Many people can make kites, but they can’t paint,” Qian said. “So they can only repeatedly make the same traditional design they learned when they were young.”
Conversely, he says, people who have Lang's skills often refuse to apply their craft to kites, as kites are less valuable.
“What we do – we’re not trying to run a business,” Qian said. “We don’t really care about profit nor do we worry about devaluing our paintings.”
Another factor is his ability to draw design diagrams, which he says most kite-makers lack. This not only allows him to alter the structures easily but also allows him to make miniature test models.
One such alteration he has made is the detachable wings of some of his kites.
“Traditional Chinese kites always come in one piece,” he said. “I modified them so they’re easier to transport.”
In 2007, Columbia Friends of China board member Lillian Sung visited Qian and Lang at the museum and extended an invitation to them to visit Columbia.
Columbia Friends of China President Hsiao-mei Wiedmeyer “wanted to do a cultural exchange, and I thought kites would be a good idea,” Sung said. “It’s an activity that would attract people of all ages.”
It took more than two years of persuasion, planning and fundraising before Wiedmeyer and Sung were prepared to host the couple. One Sky One World was the perfect opportunity.
Like the Ambroses, Qian also believes in the power of kites. He cites Afghanistan as an example.
“I heard that even though the country is ravaged by war, the kite shops stay open and kites are still flying,” he said. “Through kite flying, we can establish connections between people in every country.”