What Do Chinese Fans Symbolize? – Meaning & History

You may have come across a hand fan especially during the hot summer weather. They are a common tool for cooling down and can be found in many different regions and cultures, from Europe to Asia.

In China, however, the fan is an integral part of the culture. Chinese fans have over time evolved from daily use accessories to important artifacts. You’ll even find them depicted in many Chinese paintings.

To understand the meaning these fans hold in Chinese culture, we’re going to look at the history, what the fans symbolize, the different types that exist, and what they are made of. We’ll also cover how to make the Chinese fans and perform the Chinese fan dance.

Chinese Fans History

The use of Chinese fans dates as far back as 3000 years ago during the Shang dynasty. The earliest known fan at the time was known as Shanhan. It was different from the other fans. Instead of being handheld, it was tied to a horse-drawn carriage and used to protect the passengers from the hot sun or rain.

Over time the Shanhan evolved to Zhangshan, a long handheld fan made of thing tough silk and bird feathers. Given that it was extremely costly to produce, these fans were seen as a symbol of wealth and authority. It was mostly used by aristocrats and the emperor’s honor guard as a decoration. During the Zhou dynasty is when most people started using handheld fans as a cooling down tool.

During the Han Dynasty, more affordable handwoven cattail-leaf fans and bamboo fans were invented. That increased the popularity of fans among common people all through to the Song dynasty. Around this time a new type of silk fan was introduced. The silk fan was circular and shaped like the moon, it would later evolve to take many shapes like the Chinese plum flower.

The women of the imperial palace favored this type of silk fan. They were made either of animal bones or bamboo with decorative patterns engraved on the handles. The face of the fan was embroidered or hand calligraphy and sceneries like mountains birds and flowers hand-painted on it. To this day, these fans remain popular and have become an important part of Chinese culture.

Traditional Chinese Fans

Over time, the value and meaning of Chinese fans have evolved. Each type of fan symbolizes something different based on the time it was invented. For example, the round silk fan symbolizes happiness and union because it is shaped like a moon and that is what the moon represents in Chinese culture.

Before they were invented, while the bird feather fans were still popular, fans were seen as a symbol of wealth and authority. That is because the fans were very expensive to make and therefore only nobles would be spotted with them.

During the Song dynasty when the fans became popular among the commoners as well, the paintings on the fans were gave meaning to the fans. For example, those with paintings of birds and flowers symbolized gracefulness and beauty. As such, they were favored mostly by young women. Others had calligraphy and depictions of ancient knowledge, this symbolized wisdom, and was mostly favored by scholars.

Other fans had depictions of mystical creatures that were also popular. Men would often be seen with fans containing paintings of the dragon, while women preferred the ones painted phoenix on them.

Types Of Chinese Fans

Ever since the first fan was invented in China, there have been many evolutions. Today there are a variety of different Chinese fans most of which are still accessible. Here are the types of Chinese fans:

Folding Fans

These fans are characterized by how they can be folded into a shape that is easier to carry. They were invented by the Japanese and introduced to China in the 8th century through trade. They became especially popular during the Song and Ming dynasties and today are an important part of Chinese heritage.

Silk Fans

These types of fans were popular for their characteristic moon shapes. They were especially favored by the women of the imperial palace and hence considered a feminine shape and design.

Feather Fans

This type of fan was introduced during the Zhou dynasty. It was expensive because it used bird feathers. As a result, only aristocrats and noble were seen with them. As such, they were a symbol of wealth in ancient China.

Bamboo Fans

Also known as the commoner’s fan, became popular around the Han dynasty period. They were invented as a more affordable option that allowed common people to own fans as well. That was possible because bamboo fans were significantly cheaper to produce.

Inscribed Fans

These types of fans are popular among scholars for their symbolism of Wisdom. They are characterized by inscriptions of numbers, mandarin, calligraphy, and other ancient characters.

Palm-leaf Fans

These are big heavy fans, colored green to resemble a palm leaf. They are characterized by long and heavy handles and were also popular among commoners.

What Are Chinese Fans Made of?

Over time, the Chinese kept innovating the designs of fans coming up with different ideas. The materials used to make the different designs also differed. Many materials were adopted including bamboo, palm tree leaves, sandalwood, paper, silk, feathers, and animal bones.

The fans were also made in different shapes. There were circular silk fans. Others were shaped like flower petals. Others had hexagonal, oval, and square shapes. Each shape and type of material used resulted in fans that symbolized different things.

How To Make a Chinese Fan?

Making Chinese fans is easier than most people think. Here are five simple steps to follow to make your Chinese fan:

Step 1: Decide how wide you want your fan folds to be and mark it out. Cut it out so you have a strip of paper.

Step 2: Trace the strip you created for your fan folds on a white piece of paper. Keep tracing the strip, turning it around to form a half-circle.

Step 3: Cut out the tracing and paint it with your decorations of choice. You could paint a bird on it, or flowers like the Chinese blossom. You could even draw mountains. Once the drawing is complete, fold the paper along the lines you drew while tracing.

Step 4: Drill holes on one end of the sticks you’ll attach to the fan. You can use ice-cream sticks for this. Once you’ve drilled the holes, string them together with a thread.

Step 5: Attach the sticks to the folded paper along the folds. That’s it, you now have a custom-made Chinese fan.

What Is Chinese Fan Dance

The Chinese fan dance is a dance characterized by consistently changing rhythms and body positions. It’s normally performed to celebrate Chinese culture. According to the Chinese Educational Development Project, the dance symbolizes grace, beauty, and delicacy. It is also a representation of joy.

Fan dancing is also a form of entertainment. The fans are usually props accompanied by brightly colored costumes. Others consider it a form of exercise, where participants exercise discipline. That is because you need to be responsible to come for the regular rehearsals so you can memorize the dance moves. The choreography of the dance also requires physical fitness.

Historically, the Chinese fan dance originated from the Han Dynasty which was known to value and preserve Chinese art. That is why the fan dance is practiced even today. Initially, there were two variations of the fan dance – civilian and military. Civilian fan dance is what most people watch today. It’s detailed and graceful and uses fans and other props to increase the beauty of the dance. The military version is a more rigid authoritative style that is used for military exercise and exhibition. They rarely even use the fans for this dance.

How To Do Chinese Fan Dance

The Chinese fan dance may seem like a complicated dance when watching it, given the changing body positions and music rhythms. The dance is however a simple one to follow with the right instructions.

To start, you need two fans made of either feather and silk. Hold the fans on each hand and hold out your arm on each side. Begin fluttering the fans as you slowly raise your arms above your head. You can repeat this step when changing direction or during walking steps.

As you lower your arms back down, bring them in front of you as if you are reaching out for something. Counting 1-8, turn your wrists in and out as you open and close the fans. Count 1-8 again as you continue with the same movement. Now slowly tilt your upper body to one side, raising one arm over your head while the other one is stretched out on your side. Keep flattering the fans as you do this. Lower your arm back, so they’re both on your sides like in the starting position.

With the arms stretched out in front of you and the fans held close together, bend your knees and move up and down. Turn your upper body to the right and left and then raise your arms above you abruptly crossing one fan in front of the other. Hold the position for a few seconds to represent power. From there you can start a new dance or repeat the steps we’ve mentioned above.


Chinese fans were an important part of Ancient China’s history. You would see everyone from commoners to royalties holding one. Even today, if you were to visit China in the summer, you would see many Chinese fanning themselves. You can also easily find the fans being peddled or in many of the stores in China. Alternatively, you can always use the steps we’ve shared with you to make your own.


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