Vanishing Traditions: Miao Textiles Volume 40.4

MIAO WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, China. Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader. Detail is from the back of the festival jacket. Photographs courtesy of The Textile Museum. 

Dependent on the material accumulations of others, museums around the world have long been recipients of the passionate predilections of collectors. A day arrives when it is time to pack up one’s stuff and leave prized possessions to some established institution for, hopefully, responsible conservation. That storage issue has a history stretching over the millennia. In Britain, the Ashmolean at Oxford University, the world’s oldest university museum, became in 1677 the first public museum when it received its first collection with Elias Ashmole’s “cabinet of curiosities.” The collection was divided between the “wonders of nature” (naturalia) and the “handworks of man” (artificialia). Here could be viewed a variety of natural life, from a salamander, a flying squirrel, shells, and birds from India, to the stuffed body of the last dodo seen in Europe. Artificialia contained agate goblets, rhinoceros horn cups, a bead abacus, Chief Powhatan’s mantle (Pocahontas’s father), Chinese boots. One can readily surmise that these objects were collected with a wondrous excitement that discovery inspires when encountering the formerly unknown. Significantly, while the larger purpose of the Ashmolean was to enhance preservation of knowledge, with these objects recorded and systematized; specifically it was their public display that had an equally great benefit, so the greater populace could participate and benefit. Admission was open to all, with a fee, and not restricted only to the few elite. These actions, dating from the seventeenth century, have long impacted the museum world and the cultural and social ramifications have been incalculable.

MIAO WOMAN’S JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Yahui Township, Danzhai County, Guizhou Province, China, twentieth century. MIAO WOMAN’S APRON of cotton, silk, Job’s tears, chicken feathers, embroidered, Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.
MIAO WOMAN’S JACKET of cotton and silk, embroidered, Guiding County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Behind the jacket is a pleated, indigo-dyed Miao woman’s skirt. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.
MIAO YOUNG MAN’S JACKET of silk, cotton, metal bells, Job’s tears, embroidered, Suoga Township, Liuzhi County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      In a much more contemporaneous example, a recent exhibition at The Textile Museum at George Washington University demonstrated the importance of material gifts to a museum’s identity and mission, and how in resulting exhibitions they inform and educate the larger public. In 2015 Bea Roberts, a collector from California, gifted her 284-piece Chinese minority textile and ornament collection, from Guizhou Province in Southwest China, to the museum. On her trips to this mountainous, subtropical region, Roberts quickly learned just how evanescent cultural traditions were in our swiftly changing present-day. Beguiled by the handcrafted works she found in Guizhou, she was determined to collect and preserve what she knew would “vanish” from the many cultural groups that make up Guizhou. Understanding that traditional cultures are rapidly being absorbed by larger, more dominant ones, perhaps even within a generation, has spurred many collectors to acquire sooner rather than later. (The Han account for almost ninety-two percent of the Chinese population, with fifty-five other ethnic minorities officially recognized.) Cultures that once had little contact with the “outside” world are now sometimes unrecognizable in their original form. It’s the what’s here today is gone tomorrow syndrome of loss.

MIAO WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, China. Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader. Detail is from the back of the festival jacket. Photographs courtesy of The Textile Museum. 

      Given a keen eye and an instinct for both the singular and the representative, Roberts collected some amazing and instructive physical examples of textiles and jewelry, primarily from the Miao. One is an astonishing Miao festival jacket from the 1950s, an embroidered tapestry of rich patterning, with figures from Miao folklore surrounded by the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Practically every bit of surface is embellished with musicians, flowers, birds, and more than twenty butterflies referencing the “Butterfly Mother,” the primal ancestor of the Miao people and a central focus of Guzang Festival rituals (celebrated every thirteen years, although more festivals are now annual). Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader.

Textile surfaces exhibit the rich profusion of transformative iconography that permeates minority cultures—bats symbolize happiness and good fortune; hybridized silkworm dragons and fish dragons, other abstracted shapes indicate the importance of achieving a successful birth; birds are also important as protectors and divine messengers. Dress with such totemic imagery enhances the possibility of communing with ancestors or with spirits of the natural world where everything is thought to be alive and interconnected.

DONG CHILD’S HAT, decorated with pompoms and the eight Daoist immortals, of cotton, silk, silver alloy, embroidered, Liping or Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Baby carriers, intrinsically functional, are also opportunities for other potent imagery—eight-pointed stars, sunrays and octagons symbolize protective maternal deities who will attract light, warmth and energizing lifeforce to the infant. Children’s hats especially incorporate symbolic motifs to safeguard the growing youngsters and they are often embroidered with auspicious motifs such as lions, fishes and butterflies. One Dong charmer is festooned with pompoms and appliquéd bulging eyes intended to trick evil spirits into thinking the child is a ferocious animal and, leaving nothing to chance, has the twelve Daoist immortals in silver alloy attached.

Trained by female family members and starting early, young girls will learn everything about her clan’s textile techniques—handweaving, indigo dyeing, embroidering are among the critical skills to learn. It can take as long as five years to make a profusely decorated outfit to wear during one’s wedding and the festival cycles, so it is crucial that a garment is beautiful and well made. Technical and aesthetic proficiency is closely linked to attractiveness and desirable marital outcomes. The design and making of an apron as a gift from a young woman to a young man specifies her interest and shows off her accomplishments. Worn by men as well as women, aprons memorialize Miao daily life, its landscape and flora, its folklore—one embroiderer revealed the influence of local songs on their pictorial representations: “If you only embroider and don’t sing, you won’t know the stories of your patterns. Someone who doesn’t sing well doesn’t embroider well.” 

GEJIA WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET, front and back, of silk, cotton, embroidered, indigo-dyed, Matang Village, Kaili City, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph courtesy of The Textile Museum. Installation photograph of back of jacket by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Subtlety is never the point. Mastery of techniques is to be visibly demonstrated in every possible way, from a festival jacket’s sturdy construction to finely embroidered (and removable) patches that decorate shoulders, sleeves and aprons (and can be passed through generations). More is more and more is highly desirable for a successful garment and similarly true for minority jewelry. Silver is preferred for its power to throw off evil or demons. While textiles are the complete purview of women, jewelry is made by men trained in metalworking who design the neckpieces, pendants, earrings, bracelets, hairpins, and festival crowns, in silver or more typically a silver alloy, that are integral to the success of a festival costume. They are as exuberantly abundant in their design as the lavishly decorated textiles. With auditory attributes bestowed by jingling metal components, nothing should stand in the way of boisterously announcing a family’s wealth at something as important as the Guzang Festival in Guizhou Province.

SUGGESTED READING
Exhibition Catalog
. Contributing authors Angela Sheng, Deng Qiyao, Xi Keding, Li Qianbin, Zhang Xiao, Stevan Harrell, Kate Lingley, Huang Ying Feng. Writing with Thread: Traditional Textiles of Southwest Chinese Minorities. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Art Gallery, 2009.
Roberts, Bea. Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China. Davis, CA: UC Davis Design Museum, 2010.

“Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China” showed February 24 - July 9, 2018 at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. Visit their website at www.museum.gwu.edu.

 

MIAO FESTIVAL CROWN of silver alloy, cotton and silk streamers, Leishan County, Guizhou Province, China, 1980s. Photograph courtesy of The Textile Museum.

 
 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. Each year she travels to Washington D.C., where Ornament gives the Excellence in Jewelry Award at the Smithsonian Craft Show, this year awarded to Biba Schutz. Her visit was a busy affair, with old friends and a plethora of clothing exhibitions filling the capital. At George Washington University’s Textile Museum, Benesh had the pleasure of meandering through “Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China,” where a concise visual commentary presented a wide range of Miao minority garments and adornment. She also writes about some of the exhibitors new to this year’s International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.

Chinese Silver Hairpins Volume 39.4

CHINESE SILVER HAIRPINS, an excellent representative sample of the numerous styles, from single to multi-tine examples. A number are decorated by enameling, gilding or set with glass simulations of jade and coral. These are fabricated, cast or die-struck, some with multiple techniques. Sizes range from 8.5 to 21.2 centimeters (cm) long, and 0.6 to 13.4 centimeters wide.  Courtesy of Leekan Designs. Photographs by Robert K. Liu/ Ornament .

CHINESE SILVER HAIRPINS, an excellent representative sample of the numerous styles, from single to multi-tine examples. A number are decorated by enameling, gilding or set with glass simulations of jade and coral. These are fabricated, cast or die-struck, some with multiple techniques. Sizes range from 8.5 to 21.2 centimeters (cm) long, and 0.6 to 13.4 centimeters wide. Courtesy of Leekan Designs. Photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

Hair adornments were a vital part of women’s jewelry in many parts of East Asia, recently reinforced during a visit in 2016 to the Asian galleries of the Newark Museum of Art. Metal hairpins were not numerous among the Japanese, Korean and Chinese jewelry on display, although Chinese metal examples have been well documented (Duda 2002, Hang 2005, Lingley 2007, Liu 1999). Perhaps this results from many such ornaments being from the lower classes or general populace, and not from the upper classes, thus not of significant crafting or preciousness to warrant inclusion in museum collections.

      While on this same trip, I was able to study a large selection of relatively simple Chinese silver hairpins at Leekan Designs of New York, well-worn and dating from the early twentieth century or possibly even earlier, obtained from Beijing in the 1980s. Later, Paddy Kan sent me a more comprehensive collection of hairpins. The twisted wire hairpins shown on the facing page do not appear to have been published before, although some of the other more elaborate ones are shown in Duda (2002), Hang (2005) and Lingley (2007). Given the large populations of this country during the last centuries, such hairpins would be expected to be numerous, especially since some were worn in multiples, although all vintage Chinese jewelry is now scarce. Most hairpins were stuck into buns, to hold this hairstyle in place, while flat ones had hair wrapped around them. Interestingly, the very simple twisted hairpins have been employed as defensive weapons by women in Chinese martial arts movies. To anyone with an interest in metalsmithing, these hairpins are most likely products of small, unsophisticated workshops, but demonstrate a surprising number of clever techniques, also used in the manufacture of the metal portions of Chinese bangles (Liu 2013).

I do not know if such jewelry techniques have been covered in the Chinese literature, since I do not read Chinese, although Hang (2005) does mention the use of press-molding for rattan and silver bangles. Hang is also the most comprehensive in coverage of Chinese hairpins, historic and vintage. Najdowski (2011) has described and shown images of dies used by the Miao minority in making repouseé silver or base metal jewelry. It is very likely that Han jewelers also used similar tools and techniques, given that dies were widely used in hairpin manufacture. Due to the extensive and repeated use of popular motifs in Chinese jewelry, which all have significant meanings as rebuses (Bartholomew 2006), it makes sense to use dies to replicate these complex, yet standardized designs.

REFERENCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Bartholomew, T.T. 2006 Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art. San Francisco, Asian Art Museum: 352 p.
Duda, M. 2002 Four Centuries of Silver. Personal Adornment in the Qing Dynasty and After. Singapore, Times Edition: 208 p.
Hang, H. 2005 Precious Adornment Kit. Ming, Ching to Republic of China Era. Female Traditional Silver Ornaments. Beijing, Sanlian Bookstore: 422 p.
Lingley, K. A. 2007 Excelling the Work of Heaven. Personal Adornment from China. Featuring the Shyn Collection. Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Art Gallery: 158 p.
Liu, R. K. 1992 Wholesale to the Trade. Overseas Trading Company. Ornament 15 (3): 104-105.
—1999 Collectibles. Chinese Hair Ornaments. Ornament 23 (2): 8-9.
—2013 Vintage Chinese Bangles. Rattan, bamboo, coral, and more. Ornament 37 (1): 16-19.
Najdowski, P. 2011 Guzang Miao Festival. Ceremonial silver. Ornament 34 (5): 70-73.

 

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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty-plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. Recently he has been giving one-on-one photography lessons at our office, as well as teaching workshops on bamboo and matrix jewelry. In this issue Liu writes about vintage Chinese silver hairpins of the general populace, an important item in the personal adornment of many Asian women in the past centuries.

Beijing's Ethnic Costume Museum Volume 39.1

Beijing's Ethnic Costume Museum

CLOTHING GALLERY, with spinning fixtures and weaving looms in foreground. Such textile furniture has also been preserved in other museums. Photographs by Robert K. Liu and Patrick Benesh-Liu/Ornament; shot hand-held, with high-ISO and no flash, to prevent light damage.

China is a land rich in museums—by the end of 2013, there were almost twenty-seven hundred known institutions. We first covered exhibitions at Chinese museums in 1982, when my brother David and I co-wrote about Qing Dynasty jewelry in the Museum of Treasures, Beijing. This was shortly after China was opened to Americans, after President Nixon’s visit, when my brother was working for American television news. Since then, we have had occasional coverage of exhibitions there: in 2000, “Forbidden City” by Carolyn Benesh; in 2008, when Patrick Benesh-Liu made his first visit to China, and reviewed the Shanghai Museum of Art. In 2013, I returned to China after an absence of sixty-seven years. Having left Shanghai as a child of eight, China was so different, yet still so familiar in essence. During our whirlwind trip through Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, and Jinze, we visited museums in each city. Our review of the Warring States beads exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of Glass in 2013 was an example of such coverage.

 

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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. In this issue Liu writes about the Ethnic Costume Museum in Beijing, which he visited with Carolyn and Patrick in 2013, on a return to China after sixty-seven years in the United States. While going through the recent move of the Ornament office, he restudied some ancient stone beads in its study bead collection, marveling at both the skill of ancient and contemporary stone beadmakers, especially those who did replicas or imitations.