When considering arts and crafts, we have to consider that most of these art forms began as simple practical objects. As we see in early cave paintings, humans seem to have an innate need or impulse to decorate and beautify their surroundings. Whether it is an effort to make their living space and clothing more pleasant or a need to create, the beautification of ordinary objects serves no practical purpose other than to enhance the object and give enjoyment to the maker and user. So the design of everyday objects has been considered somehow too lowly to merit being called art. But the skill and loving care that goes into them deserves appreciation.
Some objects become so much a part of a culture that the craftsmanship, style, and decoration take on special meaning. One of the most interesting of these types of objects is the fan. Before the age of air-conditioning, fans were necessary objects. And in some countries the quality and style of fan designated rank and wealth. In many cases, their use also included elaborate signals for silent communication. Just as flags were and still are used for signaling on ships, the very special fans carried by young ladies during their courtship years allowed them to communicate with potential suitors in situations where they were not allowed to speak to each other. There are many sources that discuss the language of fans in detail, but here’s a short video from the Musee de l’Eventail (The Fan Museum) in Paris. lhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=en2MY-451ME .
The first time I discovered handmade fans for sale was during my stay in Suzhou, China. Suzhou is famous for sandalwood fans. There is nothing like them! Imagine cooling yourself on a warm summer’s day with one of these fans and enjoying the relaxing scent of sandalwood wafting past your face with each sweep of your fan. They have no paper of fabric covering, but are carved completely from sandalwood. Beware of imitations. There are many cheap fans made from balsa wood that look like sandalwood. If you are not sure, just pass it under your nose. No scent, no sandalwood.
I do have two fans that I enjoy and use often. The small one with the flowers on paper came from a shop in Jeonju’s old town in South Korea. The shop has been family owned for generations and I met three generations the first time I visited the shop. The current owner is the fan master. He makes a beautiful line of hand made fans. Alas, these were out of my reach. I settled for a nice quality one that is not all handmade, but beautiful, all the same. The owner did not speak English, but his elementary school daughter translated for me. It was a holiday weekend; so the whole family was there. I must have spent over an hour just admiring the beautiful fans and other traditional Korean objects.
While I was there the grandfather came dressed in traditional white linen. He explained to me, through his grandchild, that this was the traditional dress of commoners in days gone by. However, during the Japanese colonial period, they were banned from wearing these clothes in an effort to destroy any symbols of Korea culture. In those days, if a man was seen wearing these traditional clothes, the Japanese soldiers might even throw buckets of garbage at him to soil his best clothes. Nowadays, they wear it with a sense of pride. No longer just a way of distinguishing commoners from royalty, it is now a way of showing their pride in being Korean.
The other fan is a silk fan from Kyoto. This one I purchased purely for the beauty of the object. It is made from very thin bamboo sticks and silk habitué. The handles are probably plastic, but they are pretty and protect this delicate fan from breaking when inserted in a pocket or handbag. Perhaps I should have saved these fans, so they would never get worn out. After all, I have no idea if I will ever be able to replace them. But I buy my fans to use. So, both are in need of recovering. I have heard there are fan painting classes here in Thailand. So, you may see them again when I restore them.