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Oriental fans

Wedge-shaped brisé fan

Wedge-shaped brisé fan (hu shan)
Chinese, c. 1710-20

The popularity of fans in Europe spawned a massive export industry in China, and between the late 17th and early 20th centuries, millions of fans were shipped to the West. Sometimes their themes depicted Chinese life, sometimes they drew on Western-inspired scenes, and sometimes they combined elements of both, like the wedge-shaped brisé fan here. The centre panel of the fan is decorated with a number of European-looking figures. A dense floral motif encircles it, and the fan as a whole is brilliantly coloured with reds, blues, and greens. In both colour scheme and motifs (such as crab and fish), this fan in fact resembles Chinese porcelain made for the Western market.

Screen fan

Screen fan: 'The Orchard Pavilion Gathering'
Chinese, signed Shen Qi,
active c.1796-1820
Silk with ink and colours; hardwood

Screen fan

For the Chinese market, however, screen or fixed fans rather than the brisé were preferred. Known in China as pien-mien (face-cover), screen fans date back to at least the fifth century, and were a part of both court and social life, a necessary accessory for men as well as women. In addition to creating a breeze, they shielded, as their name suggests, an owner's face and emotions from view. They could be made from a variety of different materials, but The Orchard Pavilion Gathering fan in the gallery is typical in its use of painted silk stretched over a round-shaped wood frame. It recounts a famous story of a convocation of literati including noted calligraphers, poets, and scholars.

Wide-ended folding fan

Wide-ended folding fan
(suehiro ogi)

Japanese, Kano and Ukiyoe schools, mid 19th century

As in China (and later Europe as well), fans in Japan were a prominent part of court life, and the continuous contact between the countries over the centuries resulted in new styles and innovations in fan making. For example, of the three main types of Chinese fans - ceremonial, screen, and folding - the folding fan actually originated in Japan, and is thought to have been introduced into China only early in the tenth century. Alternately, the Chinese technique of using paper on both sides of the sticks of folding fans subsequently led to a new Japanese fan form, known as the suehiro (wide-ended) fan. This richly coloured mid nineteenth-century fan is one example.

Fans also had an important role in Japan as a signaling instrument during battle. The one shown here (below left) represents a rigid military fan (gumpai uchiwa), a form that could also be found at sumo wrestling matches in the hands of umpires. In Malaysia and Indonesia a distinctive type of fan appeared. Like the one displayed here (below right), they are typically leaf-shaped, made of buffalo hide painted in gold, and sport a dancing figure or figures.

Military fan

Military fan (gumpai uchiwa)
Japanese, 17th century
The handle: scrolling dragon. Stick: wood, covered in painted suede and iron, the top cap missing. Face: wood covered with iron, engraved, chased and overlaid in copper, brass and silver. Rim: iron. Cord and tassel.

Screen fan

Screen fan with wayang shadow puppet
Indonesia, Bali, 19th or 20th century
Buffalo hide, pierced, painted, and gilt; carved buffalo horn handle