The idea of using fans as a semaphore system is instant story fodder for a lot of storytellers. For me as a young writer it certainly was, but not until decades later, when I invented more complicated social histories that included fan language, did I begin to explore actual fan history to discover the truth about fan language.
First some general background about fans, the first personal air control system. Fans seem to have been one of those can’t live without ‘em inventions, used by all. The Chinese calligraphy character for the word “fan” has the same sound as the character for “kindness” or “good.”
Scholars seem to be divided on whether fans were invented by the Egyptians or the Chinese. Either way they’ve been around for a long time; the Chinese fans, picked up by the Japanese, were the ones that made it to Europe.
So a bit of background.
The first type of Chinese fan, known as Shanhan, was tied to a horse-drawn carriage to shut out the strong sunshine and shelter the passengers from the rainfall. The Shanhan was a bit like today’s umbrella. Fans for flapping and stirring air came later, and were probably first made of feathers.
The first hand-held fans were round and made of silk stretched over a frame. Folded fans were made of silk, paper, feathers or leaves. The handles could be bamboo, sandalwood, bone, tortoise shell or ivory.
The round fans symbolized union or reunion and are often inscribed with romantic poems, and in early days were carried most by women, and were decorated with Chinese characters or floral designs representing wealth and longevity. The folding fans have a history of symbolizing scholarship; during certain dynasties only men carried those. Poetry and quotations from the ancient masters might be written on them not only by the owner but scholars would write them on one another’s fans as gifts or compliments. Or to compete in poetry contests.
Pretty much inevitable when artful form and useful function unite, Chinese fans began to signify 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.
Our western fans probably come from China, but Japanese and Chinese scholars seem to agree that the folding fan was most likely invented in Japan. There was the folding paper fan, and the brise fan—sticks riveted at one end, and often connected at the other end by ribbon or string. Japanese fans were being imported to China by the 1400s.
Throughout Japan’s history, both the Japanese folding fan and the Japanese hand fan have played significant roles in society and ceremonial traditions. The importance of the Japanese fan far exceeded its ability to keep people cool. It was used in an extensive range of social and court activities.
A young emperor in the 1100s made fans part of the imperial regalia, and for a time it was understood that only an emperor could use a ogi, or brisé fan, but gradually that privilege was extended to courtiers.
The number of sticks, or folds, changed over time; royalty had more folds, commoners fewer. For a time, 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 could have nine, 16, 20, or 24.
The Japanese fan was also used in the military, as a way of sending signals on the field of battle. These fans usually had ten-twelve sticks, called the gunsen. Some were made with iron (the tessen), one side red sun on a gold background, other side silver moon on a black background.
The gumpai uchiwa, or military fan, was used for signaling, but could also be used for defense, though in the Edo period it was for display.
Which was the coolest fan? I thought that was tessen, and the tanto, which was a dagger fan. These didn’t actually last long, as it was clear from the shape that they were fake fans, but there is some serious story potential here.
In the arts, Japanese hand fans were vital to the success of dance, the theatre and even in sumo wrestling, where the referee controls the contestants using a gumpai uchiwa. Kabuki actors used Japanese hand fans in their performances, as well. Kabuki, Noh, and dance all developed their own fans. And the tea ceremony had its special fan with three sticks, for specific use as plates on which to serve guests with the proper ritual gesture, including management of sleeves.
The rise of ukiyo-e, or woodblock printing, in the Edo period sparked the development of a broad range of fan shapes and sizes. During this time, some women used the fixed Japanese hand fan called uchiwa while other women preferred the more traditional folding hand fans we see today called ogi fans. Both Japanese fans were in style and have been used by women since the Edo period.
Though fans had become part of courtly equipment in Europe around the 1600s, their decoration remained strictly in European styles until the 1860s, when Japanese fans gained popularity in Europe, and were exported there in great quantities. European artists started to experiment on these Japanese fans, painting various and numerous types of scenes.
During this time, it became popular to mount Japanese hand fans on a wall, probably because of the beauty of their art.
These casual displays of the Japanese folding fan were extremely popular among the wealthy or artistic or those who just wanted to be cool. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the Japanese folding fan became a symbol of the arts – sophisticated, flirtatious, universally accepted and inexpensive. But Victorians, being Victorians, could not resist gussying them up with added lace, gems, gaudy decoration, tassels and so forth. The best Japanese fans were more restrained in their art.
So, to fan language!
Alas, much as I delved into translated Japanese and Chinese sources, I could only find tantalizing glimpses. Meaning seemed to be conveyed as often in color, materials, and number of sticks as in how the fan was deployed by courtiers. Dancers and kabuki actors used fans to accentuate story telling in highly stylized gestures. I couldn’t find any evidence that these meanings were translated over into court, even by looking at Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book.
As for European fan language. In spite of the fact that a man named Charles Badini published a book on “fanology” in the late 1790s, the sources I read don’t agree on what each action means, and I suspect he made up a lot of his fan code, the way Pierce Egan seems to have made up a great deal of his lower-class and boxing slang once he discovered its popularity, during roughly the same period.
With fan language, for example, according to one source, to fan slowly means “I am married.” But according to another to fan slowly means, “Don’t waste your time; I’m not interested.”
And a third says the same action means, “I love you so much.”
Fans were a necessary adjunct to European ladies’ fashions after the 1600s, but who really used fans to convey unspoken language? There seem to have been fairly simple gestures taught to debutantes, but they varied from time to time and place to place–likely influenced by this or that leader of fashion.
In novels where fans are mentioned, the fan was fluttered by the shy maiden who dared not speak her passionate (and yet pure) thoughts. Or there was the femme fatale or the flirt, who needs to get the message across but fears coming on too strong—or being caught.
Then there is the woman who pretends to hide her face, but wants to peek—and there were actually some popular French court fans with eye holes!
Both in fiction and in real life, women expressed irritation or disgust by snapping their fans, and a slower snap and twirl could mean both an unspoken come-hither and, no, go away, please.
Simple fan gestures were common enough that I found a satiric entry in Spectator in 1711.
English fan language might differ from Austrian, and Austrian from German, and all of them from French—though especially in the eighteenth century, and at the end of the nineteenth, the French tended to lead high society, and their fashions echoed all the way to Russia, as I discovered in the fascinating diaries of Claire Clairmont (yes, that Claire Clairmont, who was better known as Lord Byron’s groupie when she was high school age. She lived a very long life, having to earn her living after Shelley’s death.)
Still, here are a few fan codes on which my sources seem to agree:
Touching right cheek: yes
Touching left cheek: no
Touching finger to tip of fan: I wish to speak with you.
Running fingers through the fan’s ribs: I want to talk to you
Resting the fan over the heart: my love for you is breaking my heart
Resting fan NEAR the heart: you have won my love
Resting fan on lips: I don’t trust you.
Twirling in left hand: we are watched
Twirling in right hand: I love another
Open and shut: you are cruel
Open wide: wait for me
Presented shut: do you love me?
With handle to lip: Kiss me
In right hand in front of face: Follow me
Drawing across the cheek: I love you
Placing on left ear: Leave me alone
Placing closed fan to the right eye: When may I see you?
Covering left ear with open fan: Do not betray our secret.
Changing fan to left hand: I love another.