Fans have long been used in many countries, on many occasions and for different purposes… even on battlefields! Today, I’m going to show you a few examples from different places around the world, and share a bit of my own passion for fans.
First, it's worth mentioning that originally, fans had mostly practical, rather than decorative function. Palm leaves, or or the broad-surfaced leaves could be considered as earliest examples of fans.
Here, we also need to make an important distinction and say that there are two main types of fans: rigid and folding. Rigid ones are oval, round or leaf-shaped and attached to a stick. They could be made using feathers, paper or silk stretched on a round or oval frame.
An example of a round painting used on a rigid fan - by Ren Bonian, a Chinese painter who lived in 19th century. Image - public domain, courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.
In Asia, fans are said to have appeared as early as 3,000 years ago - in China. At first, they had a decorative and ceremonial function at the king's court. It wasn’t until 1,000 years later that they became widely-used cooling devices, accessible even by common people, albeit in their simpler, less refined versions.
A circular silk fan with calligraphy, painting, and a lacquered handle,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In Japan, fans had been used by aristocrats and warriors as a decorative accessory for many centuries, and became an important part of Japanese art - in the beginning, the common oval-shaped (rigid) ones were influenced by Chinese aesthetics and modelled on those from the Han dynasty (206 B.C - 220 A.D).
Folding Fan Enters the Stage
Then, around the 6th-7th century, a folding fan was invented - according to some historians, it first appeared in Japan, where inventors were inspired by the way bat wings flap. Later, it was introduced to China where it became as popular as in Japan and likewise, further used by artists as canvas and developed for other artistic uses, for example dancing.
In Japan, there was even a whole class of fans used by samurai warriors. They could be thrown in combat, used to hide other weapons such as arrows or darts, or on a battlefield, to send signals to troops.
European Love for Fans
In Europe, use of fans can be dated as far as to civilizations of ancient Greece and early Rome, where they were used to keep flies away from sacrificial offerings or to keep fire in the temple alight. Fans soon became an important element of sacred space in many cultures (also in other parts of the world, for instance in India or Egypt). They became common even among early Christians who used them during services - for their practical purposes, as protection from flies.
Later, as people started building temples and churches and moved their services indoors, fans moved from the sacred to the secular. During the Middle Ages and shortly afterwards, people started to focus more on the decorative function of fans, as they were gradually introduced from many regions of the world, including the Far East and the Middle East. However, the true popularity started in the 15th and 16th century when large quantities of these accessories were brought to Europe by Portuguese sea merchants bringing their goods from China.
In the following centuries, East India Companies from England, France and Holland were importing an increasing number of these accessories. In the eighteenth century, both rigid and folding fans were widely popular and they became a commonly-used fashion accessory, complimenting a woman’s outfit.
The fans I create are mostly rigid fans. I use gongbi technique - applying ink using meticulous brush strokes on a surface, in this case, silk.
In 2019, at the RHS Chelsea Flower show, I had the honour to meet Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and offer her one of my hand-painted silk fans as a gift! The painting I created on that fan was called “Floral Serenity”:
Another one was gifted to Princess Michael of Kent. As you can imagine, meeting the Queen was a very special and unique moment for me. It was then that I realized that my passion for gongbi painting and fine art is something that I want to develop further. For this reason, I consider meeting the Queen to be a pivotal point in my artistic journey.
Where Could I See More Fans?
The Fan Museum of London has a great collection of them - I definitely recommend it as a place to see if you want to know more. Unfortunately, it’s closed due to the pandemic and lockdown; however, you can also visit their website to see plenty of beautiful photographs, featuring fans of various shapes, styles and places of origin, as well as ready about their history.
My fans are elegant, refined pieces of artwork that require a lot of focus and time- even though they’re not big, creating one can take as much as 20 hours! You're welcome to take a look a some of available fans for sale in our store.
And if you would like to learn the technique I used to create these fans - gongbi technique - you can sign up for one of my upcoming workshops. With the amount of time we’re spending at home, it’s a good opportunity to pick up a new creative skill. Don’t worry if you don’t have any prior experience - I will be there with you and together, we’re going to create a beautiful piece of art!