When first created 3,000 years ago, Chinese fans were simply used to block the sun and keep cool. But over the years, they evolved into works of art, status symbols, props for theater and dance, romantic gifts, and memorials of the dead.
The Chinese calligraphy character for the word "fan" has the same sound as the character for "kindness" or "good." Thus, fans are viewed as good luck charms and expressions of generosity.
Flat Chinese fans are round and made of silk stretched over a frame. Folded fans are made of silk, paper, feathers or leaves. The handles can be bamboo, sandalwood, bone, tortoise shell or ivory.
The round fans symbolize union or reunion and are often inscribed with romantic poems, Chinese characters or floral designs representing wealth and longevity. The folding fans have a history of symbolizing scholarship.
In the past, Chinese fans were used to signify a high social status. Today they are used to display grace in dances and personality traits of characters in theatrical plays or storytelling. In connection with the annual Dragon Boat Festival, Chinese fans have also been used as memorials of people who have died.
Traditionally, men and women use different folding fans, based on the number of "ribs" between folds. Women's fans must have at least 30 ribs, but men's fans can have nine, 16, 20 or 24.