The Lister List

Origins Of The Flapping Bird

<< BUT MY FAVOURITE FOLD, IF YOU HAVEN'T YET HEARD, IS THE ANCIENT BUT FABLED FLAPPING BIRD.>> It's good to hear from Ash Malik this morning that Larry that will soon be online. For those who do not know, Larry Hart is a true-bred Londoner and a fine creative folder. I reproduce the last two lines of Larry Hart's "peace" quoted by Ash. They raise an important question. It is certainly true that the Flapping Bird is Fabled, but I'm not at all sure that it is Ancient. In fact it is my Holy Grail at to discover the Origin of the Flapping Bird. All efforts so far have met with failure.

I want to make it clear that we have to distinguish carefully between the Classic Crane and the Flapping Bird. They are clearly related, but they are very distinct models. The Classic Crane really is ancient (so far as any chronology of Origami can be said to be ancient.) Illustrations of the Crane have been traced by Satoshi Takagi (in his book in Japanese, "Origami from the Classics", NOA, 1993) back to the early 17th Century, but it was clearly already an established classic model then, so its origins must be date from long before that. It is the one model that every Japanese knows. Ask a Japanese to fold something for you and he or she will invariably fold a Crane. But then show that same Japanese the Flapping Bird and he or she will express delight and surprise and say that he or she has never seen it before.

It seems extraordinary, but I have often done this. On a visit to Japan in 1969, Robert Brokop of San Francisco asked every Japanese origami master he came across if he could tell him the origin of the Flapping Bird, but none knew the answer. The Flapping Bird in several variants does apear in modern Japanese books of Origami, but apparently as an introduction from the West and not as a traditional Japanese model. Gershon Legman wrote that the Flapping Bird was brought to the West by Japanese "presdigitators" in the 1870s or 1880. Japanese conjurors came to both Europe and North America soon after Commodore Perry persuaded the Japanese to relax their self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world in 1854. (See Robert Harbin: "Paper Magic" 1956, page 125.)

Legman continues: "The Japanese jugglers would come to the footlights with a square of white paper already folded, the glare of the footlights preventing the folds, already in the paper, from being seen. Then, with a sudden crushing motion they would press the four points together, flip down the wings and the bird would be flaping prettily before the astounded audience." Legman said that he got this information from a "Spanish source." Actually, it was from the Prologue to Dr. V. Solorzano Sagredo's "Papirolas 1er Manual" published in Buenos Aires in 1938. The Prologue was not by Solorzano, but by C.A.Leumann and is reproduced from an article in the newspaper "La Prensa" dated 15th November, 1936. The article actually uses the word "prestidigitadores", suggesting that that was where Legman found the word. Other sources repeat that the Flapping Bird was known in the latter part of the 19th Century as the JAPANESE mechanical Bird, so it obviously had some connection with Japan, or at any rate with Japanese Prestigidators.

So where did the Flapping Bird come from? One suggestion is that someone, possibly a Japanese conjuror tried to remember how to fold the Classic Crane, but couldn't get it right. He then discovered the flapping effect by pulling the tail by accident. But this is only a suggestion. Another conjecture is that the Flapping Bird was not introduced by Japanese conjurors, but by Chinese ones. Chinese as well as Japanese performers trod the boards of Europe and North America in the latter part of the 19th Century and it would have been easy for performers from the two countries to have been confused. But I stress that there is no evidence whatsoever that the Flapping Bird came from China. This is just another conjectiure and one which many will consider to be heretical.

So I repeat, where did the Flapping Bird come from? In view of the great impetus it gave to Western folding and also the importance of the Bird Base in the development of Western paperfolding techniques and also in view of its pivotal position in the whole relationship between Japanese and Western Folding, it is a question that is of vital importance. That is why it is my Holy Grail. Are there any the Origami Knights who will join me on the Quest?

David Lister Grimsby, England.

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