WEIFANG, Shandong Province -- 'Tis the season for kite-watching, especially in China.
I've seen them there in parks and in open waterfront areas.
I even watched one being flown in the courtyard of the Weifang World Kite Museum, which at 8,100 square metres and with a collection of more than 1,200 is cited as the world's largest kite preserve.
I watched from a balcony as what looked like a blue hawk flitted up, down and passed repeatedly with often slow, almost fluid, movements of the kite-master's hands and feet.
The over-all effect for those few memorable minutes, until traditional stringed instrumental music on a portable player ended and the graceful craft landed, was an aerial ballet.
Observing kites of varying sizes and myriad colourful creatures rising well above handlers who manipulate strings while "feeling" for updrafts, downdrafts and horizontal "drag" is a wonder to behold.
As kite-fliers stand or run in unison with the wind, it looks easy. But skilled handling takes time and practice.
Kites were invented in China about 2,500 years ago by philosopher Lu Ban, also called Gongshu Ban, who flew his magpie-shaped kite for three days, Jack Sun, our guide, explained.
Materials to make kites -- silk to make sails, strong silk string and sturdy but light bamboo for frames, were readily available. Kites were later developed "for military use ... to spy on other cities," Sun told our group of Canadian travel writers.
Paper kites were up in the air about 1,000 years later.
Decorated with mythological symbols and scenes, plus those of ancient people, early kites were used for sending and receiving messages, measuring distances, testing wind strengths, signalling, communications during battles and occasionally for lifting warriors high above the ground to shoot arrows down at enemies.
The use of kites spread across the world.
Foreign visitors, including Venetian merchant-explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324), returned home with these flying marvels, and Chinese sailors who travelled the oceans and inland waterways introduced them to numerous Pacific rim countries.
By the 1700s, kites were being used for scientific research, and U.S. brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright tested them while developing the world's first successful airplane in late 1903.
Kites were even flown over Great Britain to disrupt enemy planes during the Second World War, but today most are flown for recreation, for contests and challenge flights to test the skills of owners.
Some festival versions are enormous, with the biggest measuring more than 40-by-25 metres and requiring several people to fly and control them.
Popular throughout Asia and in many overseas countries, the best and more expensive kites are still made of silk, while mass-produced versions are often made of polyester.
Banned during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution in China, artists who kept making them risked hefty jail terms if caught by the Red Guard. Now encouraged by the government, kites bring revenue from exports and are considered a healthy recreation.
Visitors can readily buy them in shops and at street stalls. But watching kite-crafters in a Yangjiabu Folk Art Grand View Garden workshop was a highlight during one of my three visits to China.
Opened in 1986 and later expanded, the 10.6-sq-km former residential village about a 40-minute drive from Weifang combines visual story-telling with displays of centuries-old local skills that also include carving furniture from tree and bush roots, nut-carving, calligraphy and Chinese woodcut painting.
In addition to buying keepsakes, visitors can make their own kites and woodcut paintings.
Among the most popular kite images are birds, dragonflies, plus tortoises, cranes and peaches, which signify long life, bats for good luck, butterflies and flowers that represent harmony, plus dragons, which represent power and prosperity.
One popular kite, called "Fairy Sending Flowers," has two wings stretched to appear as open arms. The "Centipede Kite, with a Dragon Head" features one of the mythical creatures with its mouth open, shining eyes and a long waist that swings flexibly -- like a dragon in flight.
For visitors who want to see a mass demonstration, the five day Weifang International Kite Festival takes place the third week of April and also features night displays and a concert by Chinese singing stars.
NEED TO KNOW
-- Admission to the Yangjiabu Folk Art Grand View Garden is 30Y -- $6. Instead of driving, take the No. 58 bus to the Yangijabu stop.
-- For travel information, contact tourismchina.org or call the China National Tourist Board at 416-599-6636.
-- Visas for Canadian travellers can be arranged through the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa or consulates in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. See ca.china-embassy.org/eng/.