The Chinese Butterflies


IN THE Pentagram for May, 1950, Peter Warlock wrote regarding Edeling's performance of the paper butterfly trick, with the comment that now its beauty in the hands of a Master had been witnessed by every magical illiterate who cannot think for himself, we could expect to see a plague of paper butterflies dangling on the ends of threads.

The plague hasn't materialised, happily, perhaps because those magical illiterates who can't think for themselves haven't been able to work out sufficient details. And as far as my knowledge goes, this beautiful effect has received too little attention in print. So the following thoughts on its preparation and performance may be welcomed by those who admire the trick.

It was a Chinese performer, named Lu Chang Fu, a resident in Germany when not playing over here, who taught me his method somewhere about 1930. He fanned the butterflies (already cut out, folded and strung up) from a small box, driving them back into the box at the end. Over the years, I have varied this method, and prefer to cut out the paper in front of the audience, while I explain what I propose to do. At the finish, I blow the butterflies right out into the audience and take my bow as they drift away.

The " Chinese Butterflies," of course, is not a trick as much as a feat of juggling, and as such, certain problems of balance and proportion must be solved. I offer some practicable solutions below, but without claiming them as exclusive. All I know is that they work, where other methods I have tried have failed.

The various possible methods of presenting the feat include:—

(a) Cutting out the butterflies openly and working with them strung to the fan.

(b) Having the butterflies prepared beforehand and working with them strung to the fan.

(c) Butterflies prepared beforehand and placed in a box, the butterflies being strung to the fan.

(d) As (c) but the butterflies tethered to the box.

(e) Attached at some time to part of the head by means of some form of adhesive.

The drawback with (d) is that the box must be held in the hand all the time. I prefer method (a), as this can be done without tables, etc., and the hands hold only the essentials.

Apart from the actual performance of the trick, there are four problems to consider :

(1) Size and weight of fan.

(2) Thickness and weight of paper.

(3) Thickness and length of thread.

(4) Handling during the cutting out of the paper.


I have tried several shapes and weights and find that a large heavy fan is best. Mine measures 14 inches long when closed, and so opens to a semi-circle of nearly 28 inches when fully opened.

It is satin-faced on both sides of the ribs, this making for weight without taking away from the flexibility. There can be few rules as to colour, but I think a plain colour with very little pattern

1. Tissue slips joined by ten inch thread,tethered to fan by second ten inch thread.

1. Tissue slips joined by ten inch thread,tethered to fan by second ten inch thread.

2. Shows how the paper is folded in relation to the

3. Pan under left arm,two folded slips held in left hand. Thread passes betwee£# first and second fingers and behind hand to fan. The scissors cut where indicated by dotted line.

2. Shows how the paper is folded in relation to the shows up the butterflies best. I use a black fan with a small spray of branches and leaves embroidered on in silver.


Ordinary tissue paper serves well. The stationers usually stock tissue paper in colours. I use the red colour, with Chinese characters painted on in gold. The paper is cut to oblong size, about inches by 3 inches, and is folded in the middle across the short width. The thread is anchored to these by a tiny slip of Scotch tape one-quarter inch square in the middle of the fold—outside the fold, of course. The Scotch tape goes one-eighth inch on each side of the fold.


Now here is a problem! Black cotton is no use for an audience seated nearer than twenty or thirty feet away. " Invisible " thread ravels and snarls almost at once. Horse hair is too stiff and thick. Hair is ideal, if you know any lady with hair a foot or more long. But the best thread 1 know is a French product, used I believe, by fishermen for some piscatorial rite. No thicker than a strong hair, this is trade-marked "Racine Tortue Nylon " Size 10, with a reputed breaking strain of half a kilogram. As half a kilo is something like three-quarters of a pound, I can see a rush for this stuff by all the Zombie enthusiasts. The makers are La Soie, of Paris. Similar stuff may be obtainable from other sources, but I haven't found any. Bert Linnell, of Nottingham, was good enough to put me on to this wonderful thread. Incidentally, I have never understood why every dealer doesn't stock this type of line.

The thread is first used to join together two pieces of tissue, by a piece 10 inches long. A second piece, the same length, is then tied by one end to the middle of the first thread. The other end of the second piece is stuck to the fan by a piece of Scotch tape half an inch or more square. Thus, when the papers are secured, the thread has a " Y " shape, with a folded oblong of paper at each end of the upper strokes, and the fan at the end of the downward stroke. The larger square of Scotch tape is stuck on the fan about one inch from the edge in the middle of the arc.

It will now be seen that when allowed to hang down, the butterflies will be 14 inches below the edge of the fan (half the length of the joining piece, plus 10 inches length of attachins thread, minus one inch over edge of fan). As this is exactly the length of the fan I use, it may be found a useful rule to make the total length of thread equal to the length of the fan. Sec illustration 1


The paper oblongs can be prepared well ahead. I find that they are safely stored, after threading-up, in small envelopes, the paper folded inside, and the thread led out and wrapped round the envelopes, which are then sealed. The end of the thread is then lightly stuck to the envelope by the Scotch tape, over the wrappings of thread, and everything is secure.

Before going on the plaform, one of the strung set-ups is taken from its envelope, and the square of Scotch tape is stuck down on the fan. If this can be stuck on part of the pattern, such as a small flower, it is perfectly concealed, but if there is no suitable^bit of pattern, it can hardly be seen.

The fan, closed, is laid on the table, if a table is used, with the papers on top of it and a pair of round-pointed scissors on top of the papers to stop them blowing away. If no table isi used—say in the case of a compere item—the fan and papers are held together by the left hand and the scissors are in the right coat pocket.

When ready to perform, the fan is tucked under the left arm, and the papers are held in left hand, between forefinger and thumb. The left hand is then gently extended until the thread is taut. The second finger of left hand is inserted under thread to keep any slack out of the way of the scissors. This is difficult to explain in writing, but easy enough to accomplish after a couple of trials. See illustration 3

The scissors are then taken and the cutting is commenced. The left forefinger and thumb hold the two folded papers together and cover the Scotch tape that holds the thread on. Start cutting from the right hand edge and turn the paper as the scissors advance. Thus by two curving cuts, two complete butterflies are cut out. These should measure no more than two inches lone and two-and-a-half inches across the wings. Bigger, and they become over-heavy.

When cut out, the butterflies are opened out, and the wings bent slightly so that looked at from the front, each butterfly appears like fig. 2

They are perfectly balanced and weighted by the bit of Scotch tape.

The two butterflies are held in the left hand, and the scissors are pocketed. The fan is now taken from under the left arm and opened by the right hand, always remembering that it must never be more than fourteen inches away from the butterflies. If you find it's further away than the length of your thread, better put the whole thine away, because your thread's broken! However, this should never happen with reasonable handling,


This is my presentation, and I am quite prepared to believe that others could improve on it. but this is the method I've got used to.

The fan is opened and held in the same plane as the floor, at elbow level. The edge of the fan points towards the left hand, which holds the butterflies. The left hand raises the butterflies as far as the thrlead will permit, moves over the fan slowly, and drops first one, then the other butterfly on to the fan. Be careful not to let one butterflv drop and then leave it suspended while the other is still held. Drop the second one before the first has landed, or else lower the hand to less than ten inches from the fan. In that case there can be a longer pause between dropping the first and the second butterfly. Lower the left hand to the side, look steadily at the butterflies, tilting the fan a little so that they can be seen by the audience, and then raise the fan to the level of the face—slowly, slowly, as though the balancing was a difficult feat.

With a sudden breathing out, blow the butterflies off the fan towards the audience.

Now comes the task of keeping the butterflies fluttering in the air without making it apparent that they are tethered to the fan. This is done by the method of fanning them.

The principal move is to keep the fan upright, the round edge upwards one end rib towards yourself and the other end rib pointing straight at the audience. The fanning is done from the wrist. A few brisk strokes give you the feel of the set-up, because oddly enough, the slightest variation in length of thread, size of butterflies, even of the warmth of the atmosphere and the direction of air currents, makes each performance different from the last.

Once the butterflies are fluttering over the edge of the fan, wider, gentler movements of the fan will keep them up indefinitely. If there is a steady draught, however slight, you may have to follow them a little with the fan, but unless the door is open and an east wind is blowing, this need not necessitate moving from one position. However, I think the feat looks more difficult and can certainly be made more graceful if the performer moves about as though following the butterflies. And the left arm should be slightly extended as though to provide balance—which indeed it does.

That could be called the principle move. But there are other moves which add to the routine. For instance, the butterflies can be allowed to sink nearly to the floor by turning the wrist holding the fan until the fan is horizontal, and lowering it. In this move stronger wrist movements give a faster movement to the fan to keep the butterflies at the length of the thread, and to prevent them dangling.

A pretty move, if working from the floor of the hall, is to keep the fan perpendicular to the floor and then to twist the curved edge towards the audience. The butterflies will then flutter out towards the audience, and can be slowly " chased " so that they almost alight on some child's head. But pick the child! No Giles's brats, or they will snatch the butterflies away!

Those, then, are the three main moves: Fan upright, arc on top, and the butterflies stay above it; fan horizontal, quicker movement, and the butterflies move up or down; fan pointed at audience, perpendicular again, and the butterflies fly away from the performer.

Other moves could be adapted to each performer's own style.


Music should be provided for this effect, and the orchestra leader or pianist must be advised that the .pitch of sound must increase as the butterflies fly high and decrease as they fly low. The tempo should be increased as they speed up their movements, and decreased as they slow down. As the final movement of the music is reached, the butterflies should be at the side of the horizontal fan. On the final chord, they are caught on the fan by a scooping movement, again, easy to do but difficult to describe in writing. The fan dives under them in a curve, and is then raised and held high.

The only danger in this is that sometimes, without having practised enough, the performer may find that he has caught one butterfly and left the other dangling. If this happens, another quick scoop must be made to catch the dangling one.

But it will be found that this rarely happens, for the very good reason that after thirty or forty seconds of fluttering, the two butterflies tend to come together, due to the twisting of the joining thread. Go on long enough, and they will be firmly twisted together.

Incidentally, if as sometimes happens, the .two butterflies twist together before the climax of the music, this can usually be overcome by changing hands with the fan, when the butterflies will untwist and then twist the other way.

Because of this twisting of the thread, it would seem inadvisable to use the same butterflies for another performance.

Having caught the butterflies on the fan, my favourite finish is to blow them out into the audience, like this; they are picked up in the left hand, the thread is rapidly looped around the right thumb, which holds the fan, and the Scotch tape is quickly peeled off. This done by a twist of the left hand. Special care must be used, as some brand of tissue paper will tear before allowing the Scotch tape to peel off. Personally, I found that more practice was needed for this move than for all the rest put together.

The tape comes loose easier if the butterflies are held opened out flat. Having detached them, I place them on the fan and blow them off it towards any child sitting in the front row.

In taking a bow after this, keep the fan open in the right hand, extend the left arm to balance the extended right arm, but — keep the fan-moving. The thread will show if the fan is kept still.

There is one important proviso attached to presenting the Chinese Butterflies : Never show it where the overhead lights are unshielded1 and low, otherwise the thread shows up badly. Where possible, get in front of overheadl lights. The thread is impossible to see while moving with the light behind it, but it may shine with a strong overhead front light.



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