China is believed to be the home to umbrellas, which are still widely used in
the country. The earliest umbrellas are known to have existed at least two
thousand years ago, first made of silk and later popularly paper. The Chinese
waxed and lacquered their paper parasols because oil repels water. In ancient
times, the frames of the umbrellas were made of mulberry bark or bamboo. Red and
yellow umbrellas were used by royal families, and blue umbrellas, by the common
The best oilpaper umbrellas are generally thought to be those from Fujian and
Hunan provinces, with a good reputation for its delicate craftsmanship and vivid
pattern. Their bamboo frames are treated against mould and worms. The paper
covers are hand-painted with flowers, birds, figures and landscapes and then
coated with oil so that they are not only practical but also pretty and durable.
Though it is only a small paper umbrella like other
arts, the producing craft is without any carelessness. Take Fuzhou paper
umbrella for example. The rib must be made of five-year-old bamboo produced in
northern Fujian Province to make it have strong tenacity and elasticity, and
possess mould resistance, antiseptic property and resistance to insects by
special manufacturing. An umbrella is finished via over 80 processes, and
traditionally has five independent parts -- the rib, the umbrella, the head of
umbrella, the shaft and painting. The umbrella surface is made of refined cotton
paper with strong pulling force. Then it is treated with pure paint, again tung
oil which has strong stickiness, designed with flowers and birds, figures,
landscape and scenery.
Umbrellas Spreading West
The word "umbrella" comes from the Latin root word "umbra", meaning shade or
shadow. Starting in the 16th century umbrella became popular to the western
world, especially in rainy northern Europe. At first it was considered only an
accessory for women. Then the Persian traveler and writer, Jonas Hanway
(1712-1786), carried and used an umbrella publicly in England for thirty years,
and he popularized the use of umbrellas among men. The first all umbrella shop
was called "James Smith and Sons". The shop opened in 1830, and is still located
at 53 New Oxford St., in London, England.
The early European umbrellas were made of wood or whalebone and covered with
alpaca or oiled canvas. The artisans made the curved handles for the umbrellas
out of hard woods like ebony, and were well paid for their efforts.
In 1852, Samuel Fox invented the steel ribbed umbrella design. Fox also
founded the "English Steels Company", and claimed to have invented the steel
ribbed umbrella as a way of using up stocks of farthingale stays, steel stays
used in women's corsets.
After that, compact collapsible umbrellas were the next major technical
innovation in umbrella manufacture, over a century later.
At present, umbrellas in China are made of various
materials: oilpaper, cotton, silk, plastic film and nylon. They are used either
against the rain or as parasols to give shade from the sun. Some are built on
straight frames while others are collapsible.
The prettiest Chinese umbrellas, however, are those covered with silk, and
the silk parasols of Hangzhou are veritable works of art, which also serve a
practical purpose. The silk, as thin as cicada's wing and printed with
landscapes, is also fixed on a bamboo frame. A parasol of Hangzhou, usually 53
centimeters or 20 inches long, weighs only 250 grams or 8.8 ounces, is very
handy and makes a welcome souvenir for tourists. To protect themselves against
the sun, local girls like to carry parasols with them, which have long become
part of the female attire.
Umbrellas or parasols, apart from their practical uses, have also become part
of the paraphernalia for the stage artists of acrobatics. A notable example is
the wire-walker who uses a parasol as a balancer to keep herself on the