Keeping lovely Korean kites airborne
The kite tradition is now mainly relegated to history books or decorations in kids’ rooms.
“It's hard to assemble more than 60 people for kite flying festivals in this country,” said Roe Soon, 29.
Roe would know.
He is a third-generation government-designated intangible cultural asset in kite making. His grandfather, who is over 100 years old, was the first kite maker in their family. Roe’s father succeeded him as a second-generation kite marker. When he passed away in 2004, everything about the craft and tradition were left on Soon’s shoulders.
Another kite expert is Oh Jea-hwan, secretary general of the Association of Korea Traditional Kites.
Oh learned to make kites under the supervision of Roe’s grandfather, Roe Yoo-sang, when Oh was in sixth grade.
“There’s no seasonal limit on kite flying,” Oh said.
“However, the area available to fly kites is limited because of high rise buildings that make it difficult,” added Oh. “Also it’s pretty hard to find people flying kites because of modern entertainment technology and gadgets like computer games.”
According to Oh, there are 2,000 members in the kite association. Some members are researching how to improve the traditional Korean kite so it can fly faster while staying under control.
“Kites are a very significant cultural asset that are recognized abroad, and many of us take pride in what our ancestors have left us,” Oh said.
“At the association we try to encourage the younger generation to keep this wonderful tradition alive by promoting it and teaching others how to make a high-quality kite.”
Oh said kites are more than just entertainment.
“There is no discrimination in kite flying,” said Oh. “Young or old, men or women, healthy or physically or mentally challenged ― it doesn’t really matter when that kite starts to prance around in the air,” Oh added. “Even the coldest heart warms as the kite helps them to return to their childhood.”
The 104-year-old Roe patriarch no longer produces Korean kites because of his age. He started to work on kites because of his interest in the Korean tradition, said Roe Soon.
“My grandfather told me when I was young that he traveled all over the country to learn the different patterns and styles in different regions across the country,” the younger Roe said. “He documented what he had learned and created his own patterns.”
Roe said kites have played a prominent role in his life. Even at a young age he won several kite fighting competitions.
Roe makes kites at his house in Gimpo, southwestern Seoul, with his mother, Kim Hyang-sook, a former nurse who helps the Roe men with their kite building enterprise.
Roe said winter is the busiest time for his family of two, when orders for kites pile up. In fact, the entire first floor of their two-story house is crammed with large boxes containing Korean kites.
A high-quality kite takes Roe three to four hours to complete.
He starts by working on the front of the kite using a pen and brush to paint the design. Then he adds narrow bamboo sticks using a special homemade adhesive. The last stage is writing his signature in Chinese characters, which reads, “Roe Soon, the third intangible cultural asset.” The whole process is sealed with the family stamp.
Although historically nobody really knows when kites first flew on the Korean Peninsula, they were mentioned in several historical records dating back to the Joseon Dynasty.
One such record is “Dongguksesigi,” published in 1849 by scholar Hong Seok-mo. This book states that children flew kites to get rid of aek, or bad luck. Aek was written on the front of the kite in bold letters, and at sunset the kite was cut free so it could float off into the sky, carrying away the bad luck.
According to Roe, people used to write their address on the kite.
“People used to think their kites would give bad luck to another family for seven years if their kite landed on someone else’s property,” he said.
So a family that had a kite land in their front yard returned it to the original owner with the help of the address written on the kite, Roe said.
That way people could ward off bad luck, legend held.
According to old records, kite flying used to start from winter and continue to late spring.
Another record is “Gyeongdojapji,” which documents seasonal customs in Seoul during the late Joseon Dynasty.
It was written in 1911 by the scholar Yu Deuk-gong. It tells how people used to joust with their kites in the sky using string covered in glue looking like the tail of a white horse.
The book says string soaked in yellow gardenia seeds made a high-pitched sound in the wind and cut the string of other people’s kites.
Some went so far as to glue loadstone, copper or steel powder on the string to win a kite fight.
The record also states that the best kite fliers were summoned to the wealthiest house in the neighborhood to perform in front of the house’s owner.
And around the New Year people gathered along the river to watch kite flying demonstrations.
Fifteen days after the first day of the new year, children would tie silk thread to a goose feather and fly it in the air. This is called gogomae, which in Mongolian means phoenix.
Roe said there are only two types of kites in the traditional form: bangpae-yeon and gaori-yeon. The rest of the kites take the form of animals such as birds and were developed in modern times. They are referred to as “creative kites.”
Bangpae means shield and gaori is Korean for ray fish.
“The Western world has a similar kite shape to gaori," Roe. “They called it a diamond-shaped kite, but the difference between the Korean kite and the Western diamond kite is in the tail.”
While Korean gaori have three tails, foreign kites have one.
According to Roe, Koreans in the past were very scientific in the way they designed their kites.
“In international kite fighting contests, the bangpae-yeon was a sure winner because it was really easy to control,” Roe said.
The key to such control, according to the young kite maker, is the circular hole in the middle of the rectangular kite.
“The hole helps the wind flow through, making it easy to control even when facing a strong wind because resistance drops,” Roe said.
“The lack of resistance also increases the speed of the kite as it moves around in midair.”
Roe also noted that while most kites from other countries are flat, the bangpae-yeon is designed so that the top section curves upward.
The string attached in the middle and at each end of the top prevents the wind from pressing hard on the kite. The string attached to the middle of the bottom helps prevent the kite from flipping.
“It’s possible with Korean kites to move back and forth, up and down and sideways, even when it is traveling at speed, without too much difficulty,” Roe said.
The kite maker said the control feature is a distinctive difference with Chinese and Japanese kites.
“Geographically, the Korean Peninsula isn’t a great place to fly a kite because the large number of mountains blocks the wind,” Roe said.
“As a result our ancestors had to find ways to control the kite more delicately, unlike in Japan where the wind is strong and kites of any size fly well.”
The young kite master said a Chinese kite focuses more on appearance.
“The Chinese like colorful kites,” Roe said. “The Chinese build the structural frame using the soft inner part of bamboo, which is very flexible,” he said. “This is very different from Korean kites, which use the outer part of the bamboo, which is more rigid. That’s because we focus on the control of the kite, which is harder to do if you use soft bamboo.”
Pattern wise, Koreans used to follow the traditional eumyangohaeng, known as yin and yang, and wu hsing, the five elements.
The designs were simple.
The traditional kites would have either a circular pattern on the top of the kite or a star. It is believed that Queen Jindeok from the Silla Dynasty (57-975 C.E.) said she wanted to see the full moon every night. Hence her subjects created a kite for her that had a circle at the top.
Another pattern is the shape of a crescent or half-moon, referred to as bandal yeon. Bandal literally means half-moon.
A pattern called chima yeon, which refers to the bottom half of the kite, is designed to look like woman’s hanbok, the Korean traditional dress. The more colorful pattern of the chima yeon, which has a mixture of blue, red, yellow and green colors, was his grandfather’s work.
Roe said the patterns of dokkaebi, or Korean goblins, were designs invented more recently.
Roe decided to continue the family tradition after he was discharged from the army. “It is a beautiful custom that is getting more recognition overseas. If I quit, the tradition would be lost in Korea. That’s what keeps me going,” he said.
By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Reporter [email@example.com]