WEIFANG, China — Spring is a busy time for 87-year-old Yang Tongke, who has been making kites most of his life. His latest masterpiece, a 1,200-foot dragon-headed centipede, is ready to launch. Along with his flight crew of 35 relatives and friends, Yang is preparing for the annual Weifang International Kite Festival in Shandong Province (April 1-3).
The three-day celebration in Weifang, China's kite-making capital 280 miles southeast of Beijing, attracts kite makers from many of China's 29 provinces and hundreds of local craftsmen.
Last year kite enthusiasts from five foreign countries, including the United States, took part. Together they transformed the Weifang sky into the world's most exotic gallery of flying folk art.
With eyes skyward and jaws agape, 100,000 spectators marveled as exquisite forms of bamboo and hand-painted silk swooped and flapped against the blue sky. A life-size winged horse flew past a panda strapped in a parachute harness floating beneath a rainbow-colored canopy; a pair of dolphins, carried by the current, twirled a ball balanced between their noses.
Great birds of prey, with a meal in their grasp, were oblivious to swallows, lobsters, crabs and ogle-eyed fishes. Mythical heroes rode galloping stallions, and legendary heroines, propelled by butterfly wings, fluttered in the wind.
The dragon-headed centipedes are a Weifang specialty. Last year's show-stopper, built by the Weifang Tractor Co., was the heaviest of its kind ever flown. The dragon's head alone weighed 220 pounds and arrived at the site on its own flatbed truck, with the body on a separate rig. The entire beast flies on a steel cable controlled from a winch mounted on a truck bumper.
But grand size doesn't get all the attention at Weifang--the smallest centipede flown is controlled by a thread between the kite maker's thumb and forefinger and fits into a matchbox.
Meanwhile, kite maker Yang and company unfurled their 350-segment critter to its full length, nearly a quarter of a mile. Winds of 20 knots were steady, while Yang's flight crew, spaced at 10-segment intervals, supported the craft at shoulder level. By literal chain of command, the tail was first freed to fly, and in an undulating wave of motion all 1,200 feet became airborne.
Particularly amazing to a Western visitor were the "sky-trains," long lines of flying figures and shapes. Among the Chinese sky trains were a laundry line of bright, striped shirts, a dove towing all the national flags of the world and two dozen penguins waddling in the breeze.
Adding more excitement to overhead traffic, Tsuda, one of Japan's famous kite-train flyers, dispatched his 300-piece diamond train.
Of the hundred or so kites presented by the U.S. team last year, the Chinese were most intrigued by master kite flyer Robert Loera's stunt kite, "Hyperkite." This high-tech, 27-piece Delta sky train from Honolulu, with each triangle trailing several 30-foot satin tails, was controlled with two independent lines made of Kevlar. (Kevlar is a lightweight material five times stronger than steel, used in bullet-proof vests and protective chaps for loggers.)
"Hyperkite" climbed, dived and twisted at breakneck speed, all a result of Loera's expert maneuvering skill.
While kite flying is the central theme, Weifang's annual festival includes several other extravaganzas. During a fireworks show, nine counties competed for the noisiest, showiest pyrotechnic displays. Full-scale structures such as pagodas and battleships constructed from bamboo and silk exploded before our eyes, while acrobats tumbled in tiger suits trimmed with ignited sparklers and fireworks.
On another night, scores of lanterns crafted from bamboo and covered in hand-painted paper, linen and silk illuminated the lake in the city center. Lotus blossoms twinkled on the water, a lighted seal twirled a glass-mirrored ball and a giant carp brightened the night with wide jaws that opened and shut. Strings of colored lights outlined the city skyline.
The opening ceremonies, in the stadium, alone were worth the trip. Rockets burst into tiny parachutes while firecrackers dangling from hand-held bamboo poles banged and crackled. Several thousand balloons and doves were set free to drift and flutter skyward as a percussion band boomed and clanged a musical overture.
A 3,000-member card section flashed slogans of welcome and logos of peace. Costumed kite makers and kite teams paraded with their kite treasures in tow, including the tractor company's smoke-snorting centipede and a 30-foot-square palace gate, its pillars entwined with dragons and capped with lions.
On the stadium field, spectacular pageants were staged. In a salute to springtime, 800 students, costumed as butterflies with pink silk wings rippling, "flew" in formation among several hundred green silk willow trees. Birds, bees and flowers appeared as the season unfolded.