The earliest surviving example of a fan from China is from a tomb in Hubei and dates to the Warring States Period (475 to 221 BC).
Most of the earliest fans that have been discovered have been from the old Kingdom of Chu where the fan seems to have been more firmly embedded into the culture than anywhere else. These Chu fans come in two categories; those up to two meters in length and designed to be wielded by servants, and those around 10 to 12 inches in length and are intended for personal use.
The first written record of fan appears in the Han Dynasty and coincidently is written on a fan. The Han Dynasty also sees the poem ‘Ode to Bamboo Fans’ by Ba Gu. At this time in history fans could be made from bamboo, ivory or wood – feather fans were particularly popular in Eastern China.
However it is in the Song Dynasty (960 to 1127) that the fan really comes into its own as an object of both art and culture. While the first person to have painted on a fan was supposedly Wang Xizhi in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, it is in the reign of Song Emperor Huizong that the Imperial Painting Academy was established and the favoured medium was to paint on fans. At first most of the images painted on fans were landscapes but as the Dynasty went on then they began to experiments and paint scenes from nature – eventually the fan became a popular medium for calligraphy and poetry.
It was in 988 that the first ‘folding fans’ come to China. They are recorded as coming from Japan as a part of a tribute being sent to the Emperor. They did not immediately take off in China as they were seen as something for the lower classes; this was predominantly a consequence of the fact that they could not be painted in the same way as the large fixed fans and they did not require servants to use them so did not have the same social cachet.
It is not until the Ming Dynasty that folding fans begin to become more socially acceptable. In ‘Random Notes of the Spring Breeze Hall’ by Lu Shen there is a story of envoys from the South East during the early Ming Dynasty being laughed at simply because they carried folding fans. It was the Yongle Emperor who seems to have rehabilitated the folding fan and who gave them as gifts to favoured generals and courtiers. Slowly they lost their associations with the lower orders and replaced the fixed fan as the fan of choice. Many of these folding fans were produced in Sichuan and in Suzhou, according to one record over a million folding fans were sent from Sichuan to the imperial court each year (although another, perhaps more plausible account puts it at 10,000). Sichuan in particular was associated with silk fans and Suzhou with painted bamboo fans.
One spectacular discover was made in 1949 in Beijing when builders discovered a folding fan some 24 inches high and with a spread of 60 inches, it required repair but the writing on the fan declared that it had been painted by the Emperor Xuande (1426-1435) himself.
The first sandalwood folding fans emerged in the 1920’s and rapidly became popular as the sweet scent of the wood was the perfect medium for making fans.
The Fan in Art
Handled or fixed fans can be round, oblong, hexagonal, heart-shaped, sunflower-shaped on any one of a vast number of other shapes. The round shapes are usually the most highly regarded and lend themselves most easily to painting. The handles themselves also come in a huge variety with over a hundred different types such as thin onion, swallowtail, eggplant or butterfly. The shapes of the handles can be a useful way of dating a fan. On silk patterns can be painted, weaved, embroidered, pasted or drawn.
Folding fans comprise the spread and the frame. Those for men are usually around 12 inches long and those for women about 8 inches long. They can be grouped according to the number of ribs they have; 12, 14 or 16 are all common number of ribs.
In art figures often associated with fans include Zong Liquan – the Chief of the Daoist Immortals – who carries the fan as his emblem and it is reputed to have powers tp revive the dead, and Huang Xiang who is a symbol of filial piety as he fanned his father’s bedside on summer nights.