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The History of the Hand Fan



For thousands of years, the hand fan has served numerous purposes – first and foremost in cooling and ceremonial use. There is evidence of its use going back to ancient cultures such as Egypt, Greece, and China. The first hand fans were documented in ancient Egypt: Servants waved them over their masters to cool the hot air that troubled the peace of their mind and body.

Hand fans were also common in the cultures of East Asia, where they were markers of social status and class. They originated in China and later spread to Japan, then onward to Europe and the Americas.

In Japan, hand fans were an important part of traditional dress, and were often decorated with elegant calligraphy, drawings or family symbols. The Japanese also developed a style of traditional dance using hand fans called “Sansa Odori”.

Hand fans were also used in religious contexts as symbols of authority and divinity. In ancient Egypt, for example, pharaohs were depicted holding large hand fans to indicate their power and control over the elements.


Folding Hand fans Come into Being

While China is considered the “kingdom of fans,” the folding fans we know and use today were actually invented in Japan and traveled to China from there.

In Japanese and Chinese cultures, the hand fan is a symbol of femininity, and its proper use is considered a genuine art form.

The Chinese hand fan took the form of a row of feathers connected at the end to a handle. The folding hand fan originated in China and became popular in Europe, especially England, in the 17th century. There it was given a romantic makeover, incorporating feminine cloth, lace and chiffon, and became an item used exclusively by women. It is worth remembering that hand fans were previously also used by men. In certain places in the world, such as Japan, this is still the case.


In practice, the invention of the folding hand fan in the 17th century revolutionized the design of hand fans, making them more portable and accessible. Since then, hand fans have continued to be used for both practical and decorative purposes and they come in a wide range of styles, materials and designs.

In Europe, hand fans became popular as status symbols and fashion accessories in the 16th and 17th centuries, and they were often magnificently decorated with spectacular designs and complex and detailed images.

There's a reason hand fans enjoyed great popularity among the aristocracy and royal families of Europe. Members of this class also used hand fans to discretely convey messages to one another at a time when the interaction between the sexes (unless they were husband and wife) was taboo.

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The hand fan became a silent language, and each gesture had a specific interpretation. The hand fan brought curiosity, intrigue and desire (especially forbidden desire) into the lives of these men and women.

In 17th century Europe, for instance, the way a lady held her hand fan conveyed different meanings, such as signaling interest (or lack thereof) in a conversation or potential suitor. (Read more about the language of the hand fan)


One Hand Fan – Many Languages

In more recent times, the hand fan took on another medium – dance. It was perhaps inevitable that the hand fan, its every opening and closing creating movement – the central and supreme value of dance – would be incorporated into dance. While we are mainly familiar with hand fans from flamenco, it can be incorporated into all forms of classic dance, especially ballet. Dancers, who control their body and express themselves through subtle gestures, use the hand fan as a tool to enhance their self-expression and art. They create intrigue and mystery with the hand fan and use it to express the feelings that arise in their imaginations.

Here too, we must return to the East, to meet the traditional Korean hand fan dance, which is considered a cornerstone of Korean culture. The hand fans used in this dance are usually richly colored and made of wood.


Third-Generation Hand Fans – Hand Fans in the Modern Era

Throughout their history, hand fans were made from a range of materials and incorporated artistic designs. The simplest were made of leaves, palm fronds, feathers or other flat objects. These early examples were called “screen hand fans”. Today, high-quality hand fans are handcrafted from materials such as bamboo and can last for years. At the Fan Museum in Greenwich, London, established in 1991 and the only museum in the world dedicated to the topic, you can learn much more about the history of hand fans. The museum has a large collection from around the world, spanning several hundred years and covering a wide range of styles and materials, including hand fans made from feathers, paper and silk. The museum seeks to share knowledge of the history, art and cultural significance of hand fans, and offers events, workshops and fan-making courses.

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