Aside from Route 66, there are few things other than kites that I can think of which transcend barriers of language and culture. According to legend, Benjamin Franklin made his most shocking discovery while flying a kite. Since the fifth century B.C. in China, kites have been used for various military purposes in dozens of countries. In Afghanistan kite flying is a national obsession. Kiting events in the United States often attract participants from dozens of countries.

The artistry of kiting

The exact origin of kites is lost to antiquity. However, one of the oldest depictions of kite flying is in a cave painting on Muna Island near Indonesia that has been dated to approximately 9500 B.C. Interestingly natives to the island still fly similar kites called kaghati. These unique kites are made using forest gathered tuber leaves, bamboo skin, and twisted pineapple fibers for twine.

Kites have a long and colorful history in China. Tradition claims that Mo Di and Kungshu Phan, 5th century B.C. philosophers promoted kite flying as a form of meditation. They used silk fabric, braid silk threads for line, and a lightweight bamboo frame. Ten decades later paper kites were a rage throughout the Chinese kingdom. A Chinese legend similar to the Iliad and Odyssey penned by the ancient Greek writer Homer references a kite being used to carry messages for a rescue mission. Kites were used for a wide array of purposes in China well into the Middle Ages; communication signals for the military, testing wind speed and direction, and even measuring distances. Chinese kites also became a canvas for artists who adorned them with mythological characters and legendary figures.

Chinese merchants introduced kite flyer into India, and it was here that the sport of kite fighting was born. That sport continues today during events and festivals such as Makar Sankranti. Historians speculate that interaction with Chinese merchants led to kite flying throughout Polynesia as far south as present day New Zealand. Among the islanders anthropomorphic kites made from colorful cloth and wood were used to lift prayers to the gods in religious ceremonies. Anthropologists have studied Polynesian kite traditions in an effort to better understand ancient Asian traditions.

Kite Flying by Suzuki Harunoby, 1766, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Surprisingly, even though Romans used windsocks for a variety of purposes, much like the ancient Chinese, the kite was a late arrival in Europe. The legendary Marco Polo is credited with bringing the kite back from China in the 13th century, and during the 16th and 17th century sailors popularized the kite in Europe after sailing to Japan, Malaysia, and China.

So, an argument could easily be made that the kite is more than a child’s pastime. It is a tangible link to centuries of cultural history, and an ideal way to bridge chasms of language or custom. Avid kiter or novice, Tumbleweeds & Tarantulas has just what you need to need to take a day off and go fly a kite.

Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America