Conserving the Museum’s Chinese Kites

Posted on Fri, February 3, 2017

One year after taking on the task of examining, documenting, and conserving the Museum’s 20 nineteenth century Chinese kites, conservation treatment is complete on three of them with an additional kite in progress. Although these kites were crafted not too long before the 1876 Centennial Exposition discussed previously, their structures, imagery, and spirit reach back centuries. Kites are said to have originated in China between 475 BCE and 221 BCE with the first kites made of wood and mimicking the shapes of birds. Between 618 CE and 907 CE, craftsmen began creating lighter kites first with silk and bamboo and then paper and bamboo. The kites donated to the Smithsonian are fabricated from the latter.

Green, orange, yellow, and black Chinese kite with missing sections.

The back of one of the kites helps to show the different thicknesses of split bamboo that were used to create the design. The thinner, more flexible rods were used to create the details. 

The frame or ribs of the kites are made from split-cane bamboo—the bamboo rod is split lengthwise to form thinner lengths. The characteristic nodes found on bamboo are still visible on many split rods used for the kites. The frame or structure of the kite was always the first step in the creation of a kite. Different thicknesses of split bamboo were used within a single kite frame and each fulfilled a different requirement. Thicker, more substantial rods were used as the main vertical rod, which provide rigidity and strength to the other components in the kite. Thinner, more flexible rods were used to create the details of the design; often bent into curving forms for wings and other body parts. Even thinner bamboo was shaped into circles for decorative elements such as spinning eyes or geometric patterns. Very often, many lengths of bamboo were bound end to end to create a shape or outline the form of the kite.

At every overlapping or joined length of bamboo there is a binding. Twisted Chinese paper, usually with printed Chinese characters on it, was used as the binding material. The paper was twisted and then looped around the bamboo and adhered to itself, likely with a starch-based adhesive. On some of the larger kites, thin strips of linen fabric are used in place of the twisted paper as a binding material.

Following the construction of the bamboo frame, one to two layers of traditional Chinese paper was wrapped over the front and secured to the frame, again likely using a starch-based adhesive. The paper was attached in a manner that allowed movement, or a slight billowing to occur. Presumably this was done to encourage the kite to catch the wind. Once the paper was wrapped onto the bamboo frame, some historic accounts mention coating the paper prior to painting the decoration. It is likely that this coating was a naturally occurring gum or starch used as a sizing, a common additive in papermaking, to provide additional strength and to aid in water resistance.

Magnification of papers next to an image of a man working with the paper.

The Museum's Chinese kites are likely made from a paper that combines plant fibers from the paper mulberry bush, straw, and bark from the blue Sandalwood tree, commonly called xuan. The top image are xuan fibers under 10x magnification, and, below, is a 10x magnification of the paper fibers used in the Museum's kites. 

The plant fibers used for handmade Chinese paper are commonly beaten and fermented longer than paper made in other cultures. This results in shorter fibered paper when compared to others such as Japanese papers. Paper is believed to have been invented in China around 105 CE. It is made from a very wide variety of plant fibers, which traditionally depended on what species of plants were indigenous to a specific papermaking region. The purpose of use was also taken into account; for example paper made for writing requires different characteristics than paper made for fans or umbrellas. The paper made for these Chinese kites is very likely a combination of plant fibers from the paper mulberry bush, straw, and bark from the blue Sandalwood tree, commonly called xuan. In an attempt to begin to identify the paper fibers on our kites, they were viewed under relatively high magnification to observe the physical characteristics and compare them to known samples. This research is ongoing.

The pigments and decorative elements are the final components applied to the kites. These are produced using plants and minerals, ground to a fine powder and mixed with an animal glue binder. Animal glue is made from boiling skins, bones, tendons, and other tissues of animals; often fish or bovine are used in Chinese culture. The media used on the kite is generally called gouache, or opaque watercolor. It contains the powdered pigment, the adhesive binder, and an additional thickening material, which gives it the opaque quality.


Close up of an original tag with the number two written on it.

A detail of an original paper tag attached to one of the Museum's Chinese kites. The kites were donated to the Smithsonian in 1876. 

As with any conservation project, the first step involves a lot of looking. Written documentation can include observations about the materials, construction of the kite, condition of the materials and any other important details, such as inscriptions, labels, previous repairs, original brush hairs, or impressions of the artist’s fingerprints. The following describes the conservation treatment for one of our kites.

Pieces of a Chinese kite are organized on a table and each part is tagged.

An image of one of the Museum's 20 Chinese kites before conservation treatment. 

This particular kite is constructed from mixed-fiber Chinese paper wrapped onto a split cane bamboo frame, with twine, thinner string, and oxidized wire attached. The medium is opaque watercolor with a metallic large particle pigment present mostly in the green center garment ties. The kite depicts a man in traditional Chinese attire. The bamboo frame has multiple components to create the shape of the man. There is a central, vertical bamboo rod running the length of the kite. This is the thickest of the bamboo in the structure. There are two parallel horizontal rods of bamboo that make up the wings of the kite and the shoulders of the man.

Running horizontally through each wing is a piece of twine tied to the bamboo frame of the body and the outer edge of each wing. These threads run over the front of the painted wings and appear to have been adhered at one point to the front of the paper support, as evidenced by an indentation in the paper. This indentation also contains areas of bright yellow pigment, which the twine likely protected from grime and fading from light damage, giving an idea of what the pigment looked like originally. There are multiple thinner bent pieces of bamboo used to create the rest of the body and head, bound in place with twisted paper bindings. Twine is tied on to three places within the torso, presumably for flying the kite. The decoration was clearly painted after the paper support was adhered to the bamboo frame. There are many pigments used in the creation of the kite including green, pale blue, dark blue, yellow, black, white, red and pink, as well as a metallic pigment. Analysis of the pigments is ongoing in order to provide clues about the elemental composition of the pigments.

The kite was in fair condition overall. Most of the bamboo sections were intact, except for a handful of breaks in the central, vertical bamboo rod broken at the neck of the man and other areas in the outline of the figure. There is a small circular bamboo element depicting the man’s hair at the top of the head which had broken, and the fragments were missing. The paper was significantly deteriorated, grimy, torn, and brittle; it was no longer flexible and split easily. It is likely that the composition of a few of the pigments as well as exposure to ultra violet radiation in daylight have also caused the deterioration and brittleness of the paper.

The back of a Chinese kite.

The back of one of the Museum's 20 Chinese kites before it underwent conservation treatment. 

At one point in the kite’s history at the Smithsonian, brown craft paper tapes were adhered to areas of the verso, the technical term for the back of something, of both wings, likely to ‘mend’ tears. This tape has caused the paper to degrade and fracture even further due to the tape’s acidic materials. The rest of the kite paper exhibited many tears and losses. Multiple loose kite paper and bamboo fragments were in baggies in the box.

Conservation Treatment

Conservator uses a small tube-like vacuum to clean a kite.

Conservator Amanda Malkin uses a HEPA-vac to surface clean the kite. 

Treatment began by surface cleaning the bamboo rods and paper using cosmetic sponges in stable areas and brushes and a HEPA-vac where the materials were more fragile. Flaking media, predominantly the bronze-colored chunky pigment, was consolidated using a cellulose-based adhesive. Once the media was stabilized, the kite was placed face down and the verso was surface cleaned in the same manner. The craft paper tapes were removed from the verso using controlled moisture to soften the adhesive for removal using tweezers and a microspatula. The following video illustrates the delicate process of slowly removing the craft paper tapes from the significantly brittle paper support.

Tears and breaks in the paper were mended first for stabilization using a very thin Japanese paper toned with a variety of acrylic pigments to match the pigments on the kite. You can see in the photo, I am holding a toned piece of Japanese paper over the pigment it was matched with. Following the stabilizing mends, larger patches of the same toned paper were adhered to fully cover the areas most fragile, including the legs, feet, head, and wings. The Japanese paper was adhered with a cooked wheat starch paste, a common adhesive in the practice of paper conservation.

Large losses were filled with the same toned paper and adhered with starch paste. Fragments were reattached in the same manner. The arrows point to the filled losses. The fills are meant to stabilize the paper around the loss, as well as to reintegrate the loss with the rest of the object. Breaks in the bamboo were repaired using a synthetic resin and then wrapped with toned Japanese paper for further support. The head of the man was reattached to the main body in this manner.

Side by side of kite.

Before and after conservation treatment. The photo on the left is before treatment and to the right is after treatment. 

In paper conservation it is important that the conservation materials will not impart acidity to the object. Acidic degradation is a natural aging process inherent in the cellulose of paper fibers. A variety of factors can increase this aging including contact with other acidic materials. Therefore we use materials that will slow the aging and degradation by choosing alkaline or neutral materials, which have been tested for use in conservation practice.

We’ll continue to share updates as we work on all 20 of the Museum’s kites.

Conservator Amanda Malkin talks about the kinds of tools she uses in her work with host of STEM in 30, Marty Kelsey. From tweezers to microspatulas, each tool helps Malkin carefully treat the Museum's most fragile paper artifacts. Malkin also discusses her road to becoming a conservator. 

Bonus Video

A Conservator's Tools

Conservator Amanda Malkin talks about the kinds of tools she uses in her work with host of STEM in 30, Marty Kelsey. From tweezers to microspatulas, each tool helps Malkin carefully treat the Museum's most fragile paper artifacts. Malkin also discusses her road to becoming a conservator.