This is something we always have handy, especially during the rainy season. It’s a common tool we use that most of us don’t pay any regard to. In China, however, the umbrella is a highly symbolic item. It was used for more than seeking shade or shelter from the rain or sun.
The Chinese umbrella holds a significant position in the country’s culture and has a long and rich history. It is said to have had a great influence on the umbrellas we use today all around the world. If you’re a cocktail lover or enjoy tropical drinks, you’ve probably seen a depiction of them in the little umbrellas that come with your drink.
But you must be wondering, what is the origin story of Chinese umbrellas? Who came up with them and how were they made? You’ll find all the answers you need in this post, including what was used to make them and how you can make one.
History Of Chinese Umbrella.
The first-ever form of umbrellas was made from palm tree leaves and eucalyptus, about 3500 years ago, by ancient Egyptians who are credited as the inventors of the umbrella. China, however, is still among the earliest civilization to have adopted the use of the umbrella and is probably the first to have developed one made of silk.
The silk umbrellas were said to represent a true work of art. They had various designs of nature, writings, dragons, and other animals painted on them. Initially, aside from acting like shade, the umbrellas in China were seen as a symbol of power and prestige. That was measured by the size of the umbrella. The larger it was, the more people needed to carry it, and hence the more powerful a person was considered.
Much later, around the 1st century BC, the first paper umbrella was invented in China. They quickly became fashion accessories for the women in the royal courts. Because of their scarcity and cost, only the royal and noble families, as well as rich merchants, would be seen carrying umbrellas. But when they started to become more popular among commoners, the rich differentiated themselves by carrying yellow and red umbrellas, while the commoner was mostly seen with blue ones.
Over the passing centuries, the surrounding countries began adopting the umbrella. Royal members of Burma, Korea, Japan, and Siam took great pride in showcasing their umbrellas as a fashion statement. Soon enough, the Chinese umbrellas were adopted by the nobility in Italy, England, and France. Over time those in continental Europe at the time developed and evolved the umbrella to what we know and use today.
Who Invented the Umbrella in Ancient China?
There is a legend from Ancient China that talks about the wife of Laban, a famous craftsman in that time, who is credited for inventing the first umbrella. According to the legend, the couple was enjoying the view as they took a walk along West Lakeside when it started raining.
By the time they got home, both of them were completely soaked, which made the wife think, “What if there was a way to prevent people from being rained on when they were walking along the lake.” Laban thought that the best solution was that build many pavilions along the lake. His wife, however, disagreed, since they were unmovable, hence people would have to stop their walk to take cover from the rain.
She wanted to look for a way to protect people from the rain as they continued with their walk. She kept thinking of a solution until one afternoon, she saw children playing in the rain. They were each holding large lotus leaves above their heads and so weren’t soaked at all. That gave her the idea to make what came to be the first umbrella in ancient China.
What Were Ancient Chinese Umbrellas Made of?
The very first umbrella invented in Ancient China was made of silk. It was decorated with paintings of either, natural scenery, flowers, mythical creatures, animals, or Chinese calligraphy. Later on, was when paper umbrellas became popular in Ancient China. The frames of the umbrella were made either of mulberry bark or bamboo. The materials used ensured that the overall weight of the umbrella wasn’t heavy to carry around.
To protect the individual from rain, the silk or paper underwent a complicated treatment of wax that was applied to it, to repel the water from seeping through. While it proved effective, it made the overall made umbrellas were costly, as such only royals and those from the upper class could afford to get them.
It wasn’t until the wax was replaced with a special oil, that the cost of umbrellas was reduced. The oil was still as effective as wax at repelling the water, but also significantly cheaper. As a result, even commoners were able to afford the umbrellas. This led to royals using only red and yellow umbrellas and commoners using blue ones to differentiate the social status.
What Were Umbrellas Used for In Ancient China?
The umbrellas in Ancient China were used for more than shade and shelter from the weather. They held a lot of symbolism across the different dynasties. Emperors and senior officials at that time, for example, used them during tours as a sign of protection for the people.
Also, because they were initially costly to make, and only the upper class could afford them, they were considered a symbol of wealth and power. For example, an umbrella known as the Luo umbrella was used during official ceremonies as a symbol of the rank one held. It held as much significance as the official robe. Aside from rank, the umbrellas were also a symbol of status. The royals in the Song dynasty for example used yellow and red umbrellas which were different from the commoners’ blue ones. Additionally, during the Han dynasty, officials above the third rank were used as the only ones allowed to use green umbrellas.
What Are Oil-paper Umbrellas Used for?
Aside from being used as shade, oil-paper umbrellas were used as symbolic items on special occasions. Red umbrellas are for example used in weddings to cover the bride. This was seen as a way of wadding off the evil eye from the bride. During funerals, a white oil paper umbrella is used funerals since white is closely associated with death in the Chinese culture. Old people on the other hand would carry purple umbrellas because it symbolizes longevity.
How To Make an Ancient Chinese Umbrella?
The Chinese umbrella is made of 5 major parts. That includes, the ribs, shade, handle, head and decorations. To make an umbrella requires great skill since all the parts have to be assembled perfectly. The three most demanding parts are especially the shade, ribs, and decorations. The following is how the three parts are made:
The material used to make the ribs should be strong and pliable. The most commonly used material is bamboo. They normally have to be 5 years or older to give time to the resins to fully develop. This is what is gives the bamboo its combined strength and flexibility.
For the shade, you can use the silk material, however, the most popular material is paper. The type of paper used is thin fibrous paper. It is, however, strong and tears resistance. Tung oil is applied to the shade to make it water-resistant which makes it slightly translucent. Once it’s fully dried, the shade is ready to be decorated.
Different embellishments are used to decorate the shades. Some use solid colors, while others use different drawings of scenery, animals, or calligraphy. The decorations on the umbrella are the biggest highlights, therefore, a lot of attention is used at this stage.
The Chinese umbrellas are beautiful items in Chinese traditions. If you’d like to know more about them, you can visit Fujian where they are still produced in large quantities. Despite the evolution of umbrellas, traditional umbrellas still play an important role in Chinese culture.