On a recent trip to Singapore I purchased a very nice folding sandalwood fan. It was partially a souvenir, partially a survival-aid. Any chance to use it and cool off in the 80% humidity and 32-degree heat was exploited. While waiting to cross streets, sitting while watching outdoor performances, stopping for a drink at a cafe, or simply using it to block, or at least filter, the direct glare of the sun, it was used.
While furiously trying to prevent death from heat-stroke, it crossed my mind, the absurd simplicity of the folding fan, and the sheer endurance of such a simple and effective design. So simple and effective that they’re still manufactured in their thousands today. It made me wonder about their history.
If you’ve ever been to Chinatown, gone to a Chinese restaurant, visited any Chinese friends, or looked at old Chinese photographs, you’ve probably seen these:
The folding fan, also called a hand-fan or a Chinese fan, is one of the most iconic items ever to be associated with the Far East, the tropics, or hot, summer days. But where do they come from?
Surprisingly, folding fans are not actually Chinese at all. They originated in Japan! Called Ogi, the folding fan was developed in Japan ca. 670A.D., not reaching China until the 900s. The earliest folding fans were made of thin slats of wood, or bamboo, riveted together at a point, and tied together at their far ends with thread, so that they could be opened and shut, used or stored, with ease. They were said to be inspired by the folding wings of bats.
Fans were originally expensive items. They were fiddly and time-consuming to make, and could only be afforded by royalty, aristocracy, or by the well-heeled samurai warrior-classes of Feudal Japan. As fans rose in popularity due to Japan’s sometimes humid summers, professional fan-makers set up shop, and prices began to fall. By the 1400s, fans were being made, carved, painted, or otherwise decorated by dedicated craftsmen, and they started spreading around Asia.
Fans spread to Europe through the famous “Silk Road“, the trading network that ran between Europe and Asia during the Ancient and Medieval periods. Traders on the Silk Road brought fans from Asia back to Europe, where they quickly became fashionable accessories among the well-dressed about town.
By the Georgian era, fans were becoming more commonplace and even more popular. Really nice fans could be made of Mother-of-Pearl, ivory, fine woods and silk. They could be exquisitely decorated, carved or painted. Some fans even had poems written on them. Cheaper fans were made of paper glued onto a frame of wooden slats. It was now possible for people from almost all walks of life to own a fan.
Fans were used mostly by women, but that didn’t stop men from carrying them around as well. Fans were handy for keeping cool in summer, but they were also used to drive away foul odors – in an age when few people bathed regularly, and masked appalling body-odor with perfume and scent, having a fan around to stop you from passing out due to unrestrained armpit-stench was almost mandatory.
Starting in the 1700s, and dying out by the end of the Victorian era, ‘fan language’ was a popular, but secretive method of communication used by young ladies during the Georgian era.
In an age when decorum, manners, etiquette and strict, strict rules of protocol were expected to be followed by EVERYONE who was considered ANYONE, it could be incredibly hard for young women to hang out with young men. Especially when parents or chaperones were around. What to do?
Just like young people today, the kids back in the 1700s used a common, everyday object to send coded messages. Today, it’s internet shorthand. Back then, it was fan-language.
Imagine two sets of parents at dinner, with their son and daughter, seated around the table. How on earth could the girl tell that cute guy sitting across from her just how much she liked him, when such open displays of affection were considered strictly taboo in front of others?
Use the fan.
Opening and closing the fan, waving it in a certain position or speed, or holding it in a certain place in relation to one’s body, or handling it in a certain way, all sent messages from one person to another, usually of an amorous nature, which would probably have shocked their parents.
Fan language could convey a surprisingly large number of messages. ‘I love you’, ‘I hate you’, ‘kiss me’, ‘you’re cute’, ‘We should talk later…hint-hint’, ‘I’m just not that into you’, ‘I’m seeing someone else’, and so-on.
Georgian and Victorian Fans
During the 18th and 19th centuries, fans became extremely popular. Women, and some men, carried them everywhere with them. To the park, to people’s houses when they went visiting, to town, when they went shopping, and especially, to the theater.
In an age when light was gas-fired, oil-burning or candle-flame, and before modern air-conditioning, public buildings which held large numbers of people in close proximity, such as restaurants, club-houses and theaters, could be surprisingly hot and stuffy. Carrying a fan to the theater (and in later years, even the cinema) was almost mandatory, to ensure that you passed out because the play was boring, and not because of the intolerable heat!
Fans were also used to help revive ladies when they fainted – a common occurrence due to the rib-crushing tightness of their corsets. While a police-constable might carry a “lady reviver” (a phial of smelling-salts) for this purpose, most women carried fans to prevent their own fainting, or to revive other friends who might’ve passed out, either due to heat or the inability to breathe.
For such a flimsy, delicate object, you might be surprised to learn that fans were once used as weapons! Prominent in Japan, Korea and China, fans were used as throwing-weapons, shields, swimming-aids, or blunt-force weapons.
To be fair, the fans used in martial-arts were not the fancy bamboo or wood-slat fans which most of us are familiar with. These fans had ribs or slats of iron or brass, capable of dealing or taking blows, blocking spears, arrows, darts, or other missiles, and capable of withstanding punches and other attacks.
In Japan, the art of fan-fighting is called Tessenjutsu, literally “Fan Method” or “Fan Technique” (‘Tessen’ is the name for the special fans manufactured for this purpose).
Buying a Good Fan
Perhaps you want to buy a fan for a friend as a present. Perhaps you want one for yourself to carry around on hot days. Perhaps you want one as a souvenir? Or maybe, like me, you wanted one because you were visiting a tropical country and wanted to carry one around to keep yourself cool during the day, or the block out sun-glare. How do you pick a good one?
As with anything, you get what you pay for.
A good fan is not expensive. But a cheap fan will be a pain in the ass.
Avoid fans with leaves or fanning-surfaces made of paper. These cheap, crummy pieces of crap are generally not worth your money. Constant creasing and uncreasing, opening and closing will cause the paper to rip and tear over time.
Fans made of cloth and wood (or cloth and plastic) are light and comfortable. They’re also able to stand up to more rugged use. Stuff-it-in-your-bag sorts of fans.
For something more elegant, refined, or classic, you might consider an all-wood fan. These are usually made of bamboo, or sandalwood (such as the fan shown above). Sandalwood is ideal because it can be cut very thin, it can be carved inticately, and it won’t crack or break in the process. Also, sandalwood is naturally scented (and yes, it smells really nice). It’s preferable to sniff the wonderful scent of tropical wood, rather than body-sweat, on a hot day. However, there is a trade-off, sandalwood fans should be handled with care, their thin wooden slats are more prone to breakage than the cheaper, wood-and-cloth fans.
A good fan is one which opens all the way, and closes completely, with just a flick of the wrist. New fans are generally stiff from lack of use. To loosen it up, simply wave the fan open and shut several times, to try and break the hold of friction between the ribs of the fan. Fans with a looser rivet or pivot-point also tend to open and shut easier.
To open and close a fan like one of those oldschool kung-fu masters, you first need a fan which is already ‘broken in’, one that will open and shut all the way, with a flick of the wrist. A fan that jams or gets stuck is just a pain in the ass.
Hold the fan in your right hand, gripping the topmost rib, or the ‘guard’ at the end of the fan, with your thumb and the bottom third of your right index-finger.
Holding the fan entirely by this grip, flick it to the left. A good fan will allow the ribs and fan-surface to fall or flick open smoothly, all the way, by momentum or gravity alone. To close the fan, simply flick it back the other way, to the right. If you do this enough times, not only will you get really good at it, but the fan will loosen up and be easier to open and close in the future.
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