The Kite Maker of Beijing

There once was an old Chinese man who loved to make and fly kites.  No one knew his real name.  Everyone just called him “Soaring Dragon,” because his favorite kite was in the shape of a dragon that flew higher than any other kite.

Soaring Dragon lived in Beijing, China’s capital city.  He loved to spend his day at Fragrance Hill Park, making kites and teaching children and their parents how to fly them.  Children especially loved Soaring Dragon.  Maybe it was because he always had a smile on his face.  Or perhaps they liked pulling on his wispy gray beard and mustache, which made Soaring Dragon roar with laughter.  Most likely it was because he always had time to untangle a knotted piece of string or fix a broken kite frame.  Nothing made Soaring Dragon happier than flying kites in the park with children.

One day, as Soaring Dragon was flying a favorite kite in the park, a voice called down to him from heaven.  “Soaring Dragon, you’ve lived a long and good life.  As a reward, it’s now time for you to leave earth and come to heaven.”

Soaring Dragon looked all around him.  Who said that?  Was it one of the neighborhood children playing a trick?  “Where are you?” he called.  “Come out from your hiding place.”

“I’m right here,” said the voice, now coming from behind him.

Soaring Dragon whirled around.  Standing there was a bald old man with white eyebrows and whiskers.  He was leaning on his walking staff, noisily eating a peach.

“Who are you?” asked Soaring Dragon.

“Don’t you recognize me?” said the stranger, wiping peach juice from his chin.  “I’m Shou-Hsing, the patron saint of old people.”

“But why are you here?” asked Soaring Dragon.

“Well, you are very old, aren’t you?” replied Shou-Hsing.  Shou-Hsing pulled a large book from his robe.  He opened the book in the middle, and thumbed through several pages.  “By my reckoning,” said Shou-Hsing, “you’re 110 years old.”

Soaring Dragon paused for a moment while he allowed Shou-Hsing’s words to sink in.  110?  Could he really be that old?

Soaring Dragon asked, “What is that book you’re holding?”

“This is the ‘Book of Life’,” replied Shou-Hsing.  “It contains the records of the life spans of everyone on earth.  I’m the keeper of this book.”

For the first time, Soaring Dragon fully realized what was happening.  It was the end of his life.  He suddenly lost his strength, and collapsed down onto the soft grass of the park.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Shou-Hsing.  “It’s all part of the circle of life.  It’s time for your spirit to rise up to heaven, where you’re needed.”

“But I’m not ready to leave my home here.  I like flying kites and playing with the children who come to the park.”

Shou-Hsing lifted a finger to his lips and gently whispered “Shhh.” Shou-Hsing then waved his hand over Soaring Dragon’s face, as a gesture of comfort and blessing.  Soaring Dragon closed his eyes and uttered his last breath.  Immediately, Soaring Dragon’s spirit left his body, and rose toward the heavens under Shou-Hsing’s watchful eye.

As strong as Soaring Dragon’s spirit had been in life, so too was it strong in the afterlife. Soaring Dragon didn’t want to leave, even though a place was waiting for him in heaven.  As his spirit rose higher, it suddenly entered a dragon kite flying nearby.

Shou-Hsing pleaded with Soaring Dragon to come out from the kite, but Soaring Dragon refused.  “I’m not ready to leave yet.  Let me stay here with my kites and the children who are my friends.”

Shou-Hsing had never had this happen before.  He was especially impressed with Soaring Dragon’s devotion to children.  Shou-Hsing said, “Very well, Soaring Dragon. You may stay in your kite for now.  In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for you in heaven.”

Down on the ground, a young man named Lu Ban and several of his friends were flying the dragon kite into which Soaring Dragon’s spirit had entered.  Lu Ban’s dragon kite was the largest in the city and needed a team of men to fly it.  The kite was topped with a large red dragon’s head, sporting great horns, yellow eyes, long whiskers, and a stringy, black beard.  Its body consisted of a long train of segments that resembled the body of a centipede.  Extending from each segment was a leg tipped with feathers.  The legs served as stabilizers, allowing the kite to soar even in the strongest or lightest of winds.

As soon as Soaring Dragon entered the kite, Lu Ban noticed a big change.  The kite became much easier to control, and Lu Ban no longer needed a team to help him fly it.  In fact, all Lu Ban had to do was picture in his mind what he wanted the kite to do, and the kite did it.  Soon, Lu Ban became the most skilled kite flyer in the land.  His dragon kite executed to perfection loops, dives, pitch and rolls, and spins as if it had a mind of its own.  Lu Ban won many kite flying competitions, including the most famous contest of all in the city of WeiFang in nearby Shandong province.

Lu Ban also entered his dragon kite in aerial combat competitions.  In these competitions, contestants fitted their kites with razor blades so that they could cut the lines of other kites or shred the fabric in their sails.  Lu Ban’s dragon kite always emerged victorious.  It was agile and fast, and easily sliced the line, tails, or fabric of other kites.  On one occasion, another kite accidentally cut the line to Lu Ban’s dragon kite.  To the crowd’s amazement, the dragon kite continued its aerial combat and downed the other kites.  Lu Ban let out a whistle, and his kite drifted down and landed softly by his feet.  The children were delighted by Lu Ban’s skill in kite battles.  Their parents wondered how Lu Ban had so suddenly become such an accomplished master.

Shou-Hsing, meanwhile, hadn’t forgotten Soaring Dragon.  One sunny day, as Soaring Dragon’s spirit was flying happily in Lu Ban’s kite, Shou-Hsing said to him from an overhead cloud, “Why are you still here?  Don’t you know that you’re needed in heaven?”

Soaring Dragon replied, “But I’m still wanted here.  The tricks I perform in Lu Ban’s kite make all the children and their parents happy.”

Shou-Hsing said, “But don’t you know there are children and parents in heaven who also need you to make them happy?”

Soaring Dragon paused, letting the wind out of the kite’s sails.  “What do you mean?”

Shou-Hsing explained.  “There are many mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and grandmothers and grandfathers in heaven who never got a chance to fly kites while they lived on earth. Don’t you think flying kites would make them happy too?”

Soaring Dragon had never considered this before.  “You’re right.  But even if I wanted to go to heaven, how will my spirit escape from this kite?”

“That’s easy,” said a delighted and grinning Shou-Hsing.

At that moment, a strong gust of wind came from the cloud, snapping the line to Lu Ban’s kite.  The kite broke away, flying freely on its own.

On the ground, several children cried out to Lu Ban, “Look, your kite is going to fly away.”

Lu Ban was surprised but not worried.  “It’s happened before. Watch what I do, and the kite will come back to me.”

Lu Ban placed his thumb and index finger at the corners of his mouth, and let out a shrill whistle.  He looked skyward, fully expecting his kite to return and land at his feet.

But this time was different.  The kite didn’t return, but began to spiral upwards into the sky.

Lu Ban whistled again, but nothing changed.  The kite kept circling higher and higher, until it was a speck in the heavens.  Soon it disappeared altogether.

There were many sad people in Beijing that night, especially Lu Ban.  But there were also many delighted children and parents in heaven that evening, who for the very first time, got to fly a kite. The children were especially happy, which made Soaring Dragon feel right at home.