|"Five Fans" by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)|
Hand fans were once (and still are) used to create airflow to cool and refresh oneself. Since they can be folded and made of light materials, they are eminently portable and easy to stash.
|Painting by Yi Yuanji, 11th C.|
Gibbons in tree on a fan
The earliest known fans are from China from the 2nd century BCE. A “fixed” or “flat” fan, one that does not fold up, was called a pien-mien, meaning “to agitate the air”. Fans became showcases for artwork, and came to signify status. There was much social significance in Asia regarding fans. The wielding of the fan became a feminine skill that was highly esteemed.
solid iron signal fan
Fans were even used as weapons in China, Japan, and Korea. Foremost, they were effectively used as signaling devices by commanders to issue commands to their troops. Soldiers used different types of fans. One folding type was used to cool oneself off during battle (think of all the armor they wore). Another type was made of spokes of iron designed to look like a cooling fan but functioned as a club, enabling the user to take it where weapons weren’t allowed. These could also be used like a shield for fending off darts and arrows. Officers would carry solid open fans that usually were made with iron or metal parts, also used as shields, as well as to signal and for shade from the sun.
They were used in both Chinese and Korean martial arts, but the Koreans really turned them into lethal weapons. The Korean fighting fan was made from a type of birch that was extremely hard. Depending on the owner and maker, there might be metal strips along the outer edge that were flexible and could cut, or there might be feathers that hid small razors whereby the wielder could rake the flesh of an opponent. Some fighting fans concealed poisons, either on a part that would contact an opponent, or in chambers that would open when the fan was spread, spraying out a short distance.
Some time in the 6th to 8th century, a court fan, called Akomeogi after Akome, a dress of the women of the court, was invented. This was the first known folding fan. It became immediately popular, and laws were enacted restricting its appearance. The thin pieces of wood revealed the status of the owner by their number. They were introduced to the West by Portuguese traders. Still in use during hot weather, they are now made of paper and bamboo.
|Fan by Georges Barbier, 1912|
Meanwhile, in the West, although the archaeological record shows that fans were used in ancient Greece, perhaps since the 4th century BCE, any trace of the fan in Europe disappeared until the crusaders reintroduced them from the Middle East, and then the Portuguese from China. These were rigid fans. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the folding fan became popular in Europe. These were rather crudely made but regardless became status objects.
|Detail of fan on|
By the 18th century specialized craftsmen were making fans that involved greater artistry and design. At some point, perhaps starting in the courts of Europe, fans again became used as signalers, but this time not for the art of war, but the art of love.
In Victorian times, fan were about the only way a woman could express her feelings without bringing shame on herself and her family – if she did it slyly and well. Fans had open spaces near the bottom, which allowed a woman to peep and spy while holding the fan over her face. Some fans had poems or riddles written very tiny on them. This was one way a gentleman could sit very near a woman to admire the details of her fan. The “language” of fans was written down for Victorian women, and both Godey’s Lady’s Book and Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management printed the significance of each fan gesture:
Fanning oneself quickly - I am engaged.
Fanning oneself slowly - I am married.
Fan wide open - Love
Fan half open - Friendship
Fan shut - Hate
Twirling fan in right hand - I love another.
Twirling fan in left hand - We are being watched.
Fan with left hand in front of face - I am desirous of your acquaintance.
Fan carried in open right hand - You are too willing.
Fan carried in open left hand - Come and talk to me.
Fan with right hand in front of face - Follow me.
Fan open and shut - Kiss me.
Fan drawn slowly across the cheek - I love you.
Fan resting on right cheek - Yes.
Fan placed behind head - Don’t forget me.
Fan touching left ear - Go away.
Fan placed near heart - You have won my heart.
Closed fan touching right eye - When will I see you again?
Fan showing a certain number of sticks - An indication of what hour to tryst.
Fan closed and moved threateningly - Do not be so imprudent.
Fan half-opened and pressed to lips - You may kiss me.
Fan open with hands clasped together - Forgive me.
Open fan cover left ear - Do not betray our secret.
Hiding eyes behind an open fan - I love you.
A fully opened fan shut slowly - I promise to marry you.
Fan drawn across the eyes - I am sorry.
Touching finger to tip of fan - I wish to speak with you.
Letting fan rest on right cheek - Yes.
Letting fan rest on left cheek - No.
Fan opened and closed several times - You are cruel.
Fan dropped - We will be friends.
Fan handle placed to lips - Kiss me.
Fan opened wide - Wait for me.
Fan drawn across forehead - You have changed.
How fun it must’ve been to flirt so! And it’s even rather erotic. Nice to know our Victorian sisters had their game on, despite society’s rules for them.