G.K. had me over to look at her vintage fan from the turn of the last century.
It was in perfect condition and was a souvenir of an event, perhaps a fair, in the first quarter of the 20th century. But the history of the art form called the fan starts in ancient history, about 2,000 years ago or more. Because the fan moves the stuff of life — air — the fan has taken on symbolic proportions.
The English word “fan” derives from the Chinese character word “shan,” a tool used in that culture since A.D. 121. China has the longest world record in using and making fans.
A second century A.D. Chinese dictionary defines the word “shan” as the architectural feature used indoors that was attached to the ceiling and had access to air from a door or window. This was a large ceiling fan mounted on a pulley system that one’s servants could operate. Ropes were put on a piece of fabric adorned with feathers (what better to move the air?) and pulled back and forth. Such fans became, in the highest rank of homes, a symbol of prestige.
If one was a commoner, one had such a fan in the house made of goose feathers. If one was an official, one had a fan of pheasant or peacock feathers. Thus, fans became synonymous with rank.
The idea of a handheld fan that folded, and could be stored in a pocket, then whipped out to deflect heat and thwart bugs, originated in Japan in the 12th century when an artist observed the folded wings of a bat.
However, flat fans were used for about 1,000 years in Asia as personal cooling devices. They became a symbol of rank, and therefore, became to be decorated with the “three excellences”: poetry, calligraphy, and painting.
Other cultures created handheld fans, as we can attest in the gift that none other than Columbus brought back: six fans to the Spanish Crown from the Americas, specifically from the Aztec people, who assigned him with the task of presenting their fans to Ferdinand and Isabella.
The Egyptians made fans to be handheld, out of metal, again, flat; or upon fabric, flat, for the nobility, made from ostrich feathers, and this feather was synonymous with a reference to the god of the determination of the soul’s worth, “maat,” also portrayed in myth as a bird.
So fans have held symbolic content for thousands of years in many cultures.
The American South adopted the Chinese version of the ceiling fan in Southern architecture in the 19th century and called these fans by a Chinese name, but anglicized: “chuke fans” As a measure of status, one had servants use the fans to cool off the room.
Two hefty strings were attached to two boards on a lever system, and two servants pulled to get the desired cooling effect.
On the other hand, literally, a handheld and decorated fan was recorded as early as 33 B.C.E. in China, when a flat fan was decorated with a poem or a painting or calligraph, but the best of them were decorated with all three excellencies.
By the time the Japanese folding fan made its way to China in the Sung dynasty (960-1279), we see the very same form of G.S.’s fan, a paper folding fan on a wooden stick, which can be refolded and stored, and was painted and decorated. This form was called a “wo-shan.”
Surprisingly, Asian families would change out their relative’s fan’s papers, and keep the delicate ribs, and thus, it was not the decorations on paper that were venerated, but the ribs. The ribs were considered a family treasure, perhaps for the fine engineering involved.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, fans were exported from Asia to Europe and were highly desirable. They were often painted in the “western taste,” which meant that these fans were not abstract, did not contain calligraphy, or Chinese poems. But at the turn of the 20th century, these fans were banished as exports to the West by the new Chinese Republic.
G.K.’s fan, however, dates from the early 20th century when American manufacturers saw the profitability of paper and simple wood to create such souvenirs. I have seen many as emblazoned with certain world’s fair emblems from this period.
G.K.’s is a delightful symbol of the lingering appeal of the fan, and hers is in perfect condition.
The value of G.K.’s fan is $150.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Saturdays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.