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With a single string, we can touch the heavens

Updated: 2022-01-13 09:04 ( China Daily )
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A startling constellation was visible in Beijing's western sky the other night.

It wasn't made up of twinkling stars, and neither was it Mars, Jupiter or even Venus. It was, however, enchanting. After all, which evening "star" alternates slowly between flashes of brilliant green and red?

I realized I was looking at a cluster of LED-illuminated kites flying magnificently high above the large open space just a few minutes' walk south of the National Stadium, otherwise known as the Bird's Nest.

I've watched, mesmerized, at that very site during daylight as kite masters unreeled their fancy flyers on Beijing's buoyant winds. They would let out just enough line to give lift to the huge kite, then guide its gradual climb until the kite was virtually out of sight, a mere dancing dot in the afternoon sky.

But night flying-what a tantalizing twist!

I fondly recall my own boyhood adventures with kites, although with so many overhead electrical lines in my neighborhood, we didn't dare fly at night (and LED lights were unheard of then, anyway, so night kites would be a sight unseen).

The wide-open expanse near the Bird's Nest, on the other hand, offers plenty of room for the number of enthusiasts often clustered there, day or night.

In Beijing, whose after-dark skyline becomes a splash of color, countless buildings coming alive with light displays that rival the Las Vegas Strip, the night kites offer one more reason to look skyward.

What is it about kites that can instantly transform adults into wonder-struck children gazing toward the heavens?

Maybe the answer itself is childish. Most of us love attention, so we are thrilled to literally pull the strings on an aerial show that, especially at night, can be seen far and wide. There is a sense of power and achievement, too, as we run like the wind to launch a kite, feeling it take off and then watching it gradually gain altitude.

And let's face it, in an increasingly virtually connected world, that kite string provides a wonderfully palpable connection. Would it be even half as exciting if the kite were remote-controlled instead, and we couldn't feel the kite's bobs and tugs as we battled the wind for control?

Kites have provided people (and birds, perhaps) with amusement for at least 2,000 years, with convincing evidence that they originated in China.

They've even had practical uses over the years, from sending signals and gauging distance to monitoring weather phenomena.

Nonetheless, it's not likely that such mundane uses intrigue kite aficionados, who probably view these high flyers as neither tool nor toy.

The real reason we love them is for the thrill they give us when, with our feet planted firmly on the ground and a single string in our hands, we can touch the heavens.

The kite triggers within us a primordial wish to ride the winds like Icarus of Greek mythology, who longed to soar close to the sun. ("Lawnchair Larry", the beer-guzzling adventurer who attached huge helium balloons to a lawn chair in 1982 and rose to such heights above Long Beach Airport in California that passengers on nearby planes could wave at him, also comes to mind.)

We may even try to imagine what can be seen from a kite floating aloft like a cloud. No wonder the ancient kite flyers thought they were literally sending their prayers to the gods.

And so the kites of old were ascribed nearly supernatural powers, much as the Native American Lakota people have long believed that the farseeing eagle, due to its ability to soar so high, is a messenger of Wakan Tanka, the complex and mysterious supreme being of their religion.

Nowadays, Beijingers manipulating night kites with their splendid array of LED lights are, figuratively and otherwise, reaching for the stars. From my earthbound vantage point, as I watch these human-dispatched twinklers mingling yonder with the heavenly bodies, I'd have to say they've succeeded.

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