Did you know that kites were invented 2,300 years ago? A Chinese philosopher, Mo Di, who lived from 468-376 BCE, designed the very first kite in the shape of an eagle. It was not made out of paper, because paper had not been invented yet. Instead, he used wood. Imagine how hard it must have been to fly a wooden kite! Amazingly, he did manage to keep it in the air for a whole day. His student, Gongshu Ban, later nicknamed Lu Ban, learned how to build kites from Mo Di. He even improved upon his mentor’s design, making a bamboo kite in the shape of a magpie, which is a bird common on the Eurasia continent. Lu Ban was able to keep his kite in the air for up to three days.The invention of paper transformed kites forever. Paper was officially invented in China in 105 CE by Cai Lun, who showed this new versatile material to Emperor Hedi of the Eastern Han Dynasty. To make paper, Lun had combined frayed fishnet, bark and cloth. These raw materials were commonly found in the area, so it became much more cost effective to use paper rather than bamboo strips on which to write. It wasn’t long before someone tried making kites from paper. Paper kites caught on quickly with the general public. The lighter-weight material allowed the kites to fly higher and longer. Soon, kites were a great source of entertainment for adults and children alike. It is easy to see how flying kites helped to spark man’s curiosity about flight, eventually leading to many more inventions including the first airplane.
Most of us think of kites as having a diamond shape, thin wood or plastic bars forming a cross, and a tail. Although this is the most common shape today, kites historically came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from hollow squares (box kites) to birds, dragons and centipedes. Click here to see some traditional Chinese kite styles and click here to visit our Activities section below and find out how to make a traditional box kite!
Military Uses for Kites
Long before kites became popular as toys for kids, they had a serious purpose for the Chinese military. Early kites were used to spy on enemy armies from up in the air. Some kites were large enough to lift a man into the air and would be floated over the opposing army to spot their position and see how heavily armed they were. Kites were also used to scatter propaganda flyers.
Chinese General Han Hsin even used a kite one time to conquer an enemy castle. The castle was so heavily fortified that there was no way to attack it with ordinary tactics. General Hsin came up with an ingenious plan to tunnel under the castle wall. But first, he had to calculate the distance, so he flew a kite over the castle walls and used geometry to measure how long the tunnel had to be.
The Aerodynamics of Flight
“Aerodynamics” is the term that refers to how air (or any gas) moves when an object travels through it. Forces that determine if the object can fly are: “velocity,” “lift,” “drag” and “air density,” as well as the surface area of the object.
The same combination of forces that enable a kite to fly also enable an airplane to fly. The “airfoil” shape of the wing helps to compensate for the extra surface area and weight of the airplane.
Kites Used in Modern Sports
Have you heard of parasailing and paragliding? Both of these adventure sports rely on the same laws of physics and aerodynamics as kites. Because they are much larger than typical kites, they can lift and carry one or two people high into the air.
If you visit the beach, or a lake resort, you may see people parasailing behind a speedboat.
People who love being up high in the air, may opt to paraglide instead, which involves being strung to a paraglider and strapped to a backpack-styled chair.
The person then runs as fast as he (or she) can—the same way we run to get our kite up into the air. The paraglider catches the air and lifts the person up. Once off the ground, he can steer and adjust the angle of the paraglider to handle gusts of wind and to extend the flight as long as possible. Serious paragliders often glide off of high mountains.
Paragliding may seem like a new phenomenon, but the concept is almost as old as kite-flying. Think back to the way that the Chinese military used giant kites. Those kites lifted people up off the ground to spy on the enemy—and that was over 2000 years ago. Today’s paragliders lift people up in much the same way. Because ancient China dared to explore the aerodynamics of flight, today we can enjoy flying our kites, floating on paragliders and traveling on airplanes.
To see how kite technology led to the amazing technology that allows us to fly over our world and see it from all new angles today, watch the video below taken by a drone soaring over Beijing.
For Grades 1-3
Chinese Kites Fill-in-the-Blank Worksheet
Click here to download a fun worksheet with answers from the blog post.
- List some things you know can fly. What things to they have in common that allows them to fly?
- Mo Di was a thinker. He liked to figure out why things worked the way they did. Mo Di built the very first kite. Why do you think he did that? Why would anyone want to invent something to fly?
- If a kite is big enough, can it lift up a person? In the kite story, did the Chinese military use giant kites? What did they use them for? Do we have giant kites today? What do we use them for?
On a large sheet of paper, draw and color a picture of three children flying three different shaped kites. Click here to find kite designs for your picture.
For Grades 4-6
Click here to download a list of vocabulary words from the blog post above.
Critical Thinking Activity Worksheet
Click here to download a worksheet with several critical thinking activities.
Indoor Box Kite Lesson Plan, with Worksheets and Activities –click to download a pdf courtesy of AMA Flight School.
Build a model-sized kite and fly it in front of a fan. Critical thinking component: Investigate the forces of aerodynamics and flight.
 Ray, K. (2004, January 1). The History of the Kite. China Eye.
 Yan, H. (2007). Reconstruction designs of lost ancient Chinese machinery (p. 271). Dordrecht: Springer.
 Four Inventions of Ancient China: Paper Making, Gunpowder, Printing, Compass. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2014.
 Sparklab: Imaginary places of invention. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2014, from http://invention.smithsonian.org/downloads/sparklab-kite.pdf
 Ray, K.
 Exploring Science and Math Using Kites. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2014, from http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-121107-011.pdf