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Hand-Held Fans

Updated on July 28, 2016
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Bronwen and her family have enjoyed collecting many things, including fans, clocks, books and shells.

An Elegant Lace-Trimmed Folding Fan
An Elegant Lace-Trimmed Folding Fan | Source

The Changing Use of the Fan

Fashion and the use of hand-held fans has changed over the centuries. At first, the fan was a simple tool for coaxing a fire into life, for keeping away insects and flies, or for cooling the face in hot weather. Then more elaborate fans were made and they became things of beauty, fashion accessories for the elite. In Victorian times in Europe, the Language of the Fan developed.

The need for a fan (and therefore its design) has changed over the centuries. Fans made of feathers were used over three thousand years ago. In different cultures they have been used to add pomp and ceremonial significance, and in the middle ages they gave grace and charm to court dancers. They have been used by both men and women.

China: The early fans were paddle fans. Silk and satin became more available in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D), with wood and ivory appearing around 990 B.C. and plainer fans began to be used by the common people. In some areas palm fans were made in the Jin Dynasty (264 - 420 A.D.). Silk and satin fans continued through the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 A.D.) and they became the fashion among scholars and artists, when they would write a poem or paint a picture on the fan.

Egypt: Fans were used in ancient Egypt. Some were quite large, as can be seen from ancient frescoes.

  • Europe: In the middle ages fans were used in the Christian liturgy and continued to be used in the Roman Catholic church until Vatican II. There are religious pictures of holy men holding fans. Sometimes religious pictures were painted on the fans, or lists of saints or holy days were written on them.
  • Egypt: Fans were used in ancient Egypt. Some were quite large, as can be seen from ancient frescoes. Fans were used in ancient Greece in the fourth century B.C. and probably before that.
  • Japan: Fans were used by the military to send signals on the battle-field, but were mainly used at court. The Japanese invented the folding fan and it was introduced into China about a thousand years ago. They were made with fine paper and bamboo.
  • Spain: Fans were, and still are used, especially in Flamenco dancing. They are often trimmed with lace.

A Modern Japanese Fan
A Modern Japanese Fan | Source
Paddle Fan - Painted on Silk with Bamboo Frame
Paddle Fan - Painted on Silk with Bamboo Frame | Source
Modern Folding Fan - Painted on Manmade Fabric with Dyed Wood Ribs
Modern Folding Fan - Painted on Manmade Fabric with Dyed Wood Ribs | Source

Types of Fans

The Folding Fan: The folding fan was introduced to China from Japan around 1,000 A.D. In the late sixteenth century they were introduced to the West by Portuguese travellers.

Parts of a Folding Fan

Showing the Parts of the Fan
Showing the Parts of the Fan | Source
  • The ribs: The ribs are also known as sticks or slats. Ribs had been made of ivory, bone, camphor-wood, sandalwood, tortoise-shell, silver and gold. They are sometimes pierced with intricate designs, making up the whole of the folding fan.
  • The sticks: The two end ribs are usually known as sticks; they are wider and are often decorated with patterns, pierced, or painted with gold.
  • The head: The screw or swivel that holds all the ribs together is known as the head. This is often threaded with ribbon and decorated with beads, even pearls.
  • The cover: The cover on folding fans are made of a variety of materials and this is sometimes double, so that the decoration can be on both sides of the fan.

Pierced Bamboo and Painted Fan, 1990s, Taiwan
Pierced Bamboo and Painted Fan, 1990s, Taiwan | Source
Papuan Fan Made from Palm Leaves, 1960
Papuan Fan Made from Palm Leaves, 1960 | Source
Papuan Fan made from Palm Leaves and Feathers, 1962
Papuan Fan made from Palm Leaves and Feathers, 1962 | Source
My Mother's Bamboo and Silk Fan, 1920s
My Mother's Bamboo and Silk Fan, 1920s | Source

Materials Used in Fan Making

The cover: A wide range of materials have been used to cover the fan, including paper, hand-made paper, silk and other fabrics.

The ribs: These have been made of a variety of materials, too. They include ivory, bone, mother of pearl, saldalwood, tortoiseshell.

The decoration: Decorations vary, often according to the country and culture. Chinese fans were often hand-painted; Spanish fans had the edges trimmed with lace, while wooden fans were often pierced with intricate patterns along the ribs.

The tassel: Tassels were often added and these were especially long on important occasions, such as weddings.

The Chinese fan used in dancing was usually made of thick paper that had the family crest imprinted or painted on it and the fan had ten ribs. Fans used in other Asian fan dances are similar.

In Papua New Guinea and other places where palm-trees and long grasses are abundant, fans have been made using those materials. The strands have often been dyed and then woven together in intricate patterns. Some have been decorated with shells and feathers.

My Grandmother's Silk Victorian Fan, Embroidered in Silk
My Grandmother's Silk Victorian Fan, Embroidered in Silk | Source

The Language of the Fan

In Victorian times the fan became a necessary fashion accessory and the language of the fan developed. It was ideal for communicating as the Japanese military had found centuries before.

There were many meaningful movements of the fan, and coupled with the young lady's use of her eyes, a great number of clandestine meetings were arranged right in front of the chaperone, without her knowledge.

Ship-board Oriental Menu Printed on a Paddle Fan
Ship-board Oriental Menu Printed on a Paddle Fan | Source

Uses for Fans

Fans were often used for storing information. It may be a poem, a list of holy days, or (like an autograph book) for people's signatures, especially at dances where young people met.

They have also been utilised as menu cards, as in one of the fans above, and as a souvenir, as in the fan from Bali below.

Fans are still useful today. A folding fan is a convenient addition to a lady's handbag in case of warm weather. Fans can be an elegant addition to a wedding, perhaps matching the coordinated colours of the wedding and with a message printed on them as a favour for guests. A lovely idea and reminder of a more leisurely and graceful age.

A Wooden Fan That Tells Where it Came From: Bali, Indonesia
A Wooden Fan That Tells Where it Came From: Bali, Indonesia | Source
A Poem on a Chinese Fan
A Poem on a Chinese Fan | Source

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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I once defended a murderous woman on a charge of murder. It was in a back water desert town. We had those big old slow moving fans from the ceiling and the Jurors and all were issued little hand fans. We were admonished that we could remove coats in the courtroom.

      Two decades later I was marrying my bride in Southeast Asia, the same looking fans appeared.

      I was asked to preach a special sermon in a southern Baptist church and as I began to wail and bring in some brimstone -- the fans came out.

      Thank you for bringing back the memories.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      I have a refreshed appreciation of fans. Thank you. See FB

    • janshares profile image

      Janis Leslie Evans 4 years ago from Washington, DC

      Wow! What a beautiful, original hub. I practice tai chi and my favorite form I presented in tournament was tai chi fan. Thank you for the visuals. Up, beautiful, and interesting.

    • LaThing profile image

      LaThing 4 years ago from From a World Within, USA

      Great hub! Nice to find out more about the history of the fans, and those are beautiful pictures. Wonderful job, Blossom! Voting up and everything :)

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Another wonderful hub of how to create such beautiful fans. Thank you for sharing.

      Eddy.

    • BlossomSB profile image
      Author

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Ericdierker: Interesting memories. Thank you for sharing them.

      Mhatter99: You won't be needing them at the moment, I imagine, but summer will come and a fan could be useful.

      janshares: Thank you. Tai chi fan sounds interesting. Glad you enjoyed it.

      LaThing: Thank you for your enthusiasm and vote. The photos take a while to take and down load so I'm glad that you enjoyed them.

      Eiddwen: Thank you, dear Eddy. Hope the weather over there is improving and that you have a beautiful spring.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 4 years ago from Shelton

      Blossom what a good share and I wouldn't have expected anything less :)

    • anglnwu profile image

      anglnwu 4 years ago

      What a collection of interesting fans you have. Thanks for sharing the history of fans and how they're used in different cultures. Rated up.

    • BlossomSB profile image
      Author

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Frank Atanacio: What a lovely comment. Thank you.

      Anglnwu: They are interesting. It's lovely to have stories behind the things that clutter my house. Thank you for your vote.

    • teacherjoe52 profile image

      teacherjoe52 4 years ago

      Good morning Blossom.

      Very interesting. I did not know the Japanese invented the folding fan. It will be fun to share that with the Chinese.

      They have incredible fans for sale everywhere here when it is hot. I use them all the time.

      God bless you.

    • BlossomSB profile image
      Author

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      teachesjoe52: Good morning! Yes, it will be hot up your way, especially at this time of the year. Fans are a very useful tool for many occasions. May God bless you, too.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 4 years ago from California

      Beautiful hub Blossom! I happen to love fans!

    • BlossomSB profile image
      Author

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      AudreyHowitt: Thank you, so do I! As well as being useful today, they are reminiscent of another, more graceful and leisurely age.

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