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.

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. 

Zhou Dynasty Glass Volume 38.4 Preview

Zhou Dynasty Glass and Silicate Jewelry

 

Since I began studying the faience, glass and other silicate ornaments of the Zhou Dynasty in 1975, this field has undergone a sharp dichotomy. While previously mostly foreign scientists or Chinese outside of China researched their chemical makeup, age and stylistics, in the past decades Chinese themselves have begun to intensively study their composition, through sophisticated non-destructive techniques like XRF and Raman spectroscopy, but with little attention to their typology, chronology or how they were made or used, despite the enormous increase in number of excavated sites bearing such beads (Gan 2009; Kwan 2001, 2013; Lankton and Dussubieux 2006, 2013; Li et al., 2015; Liu 1975, 1991, 2005, 2013; Yang et al., 2013; Zhu 2013). Now regarded as important cultural relics, beads of the Zhou/Han times were widely sold since at least the 1990s on the world antiquities markets, often sourced by looting, and which are still available (Murphy 1995; Liu 1996-1997).

      Faience, composite silicates and glass came late to China, lagging behind the Near East; faience about 1000 B.C. and composite silicates, frit and glass in the Spring and Autumn/Warring States (W.S.) periods of the Zhou dynasty. By then, bronze and stone industries were well established, with the former using sophisticated piece-mold and core-casting, while the latter employed similarly advanced lapidary technology. Even in the 1970s, I realized that these early Chinese glassworkers had adapted some of these same techniques for fabricating their glass ornaments, as seen in mold-cast, press-molded and lapidary-finished Zhou and Han glass artifacts. My own research on composite beads also implicates the role of early ceramics.

 

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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His new 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 he writes about the extraordinary crafting of Zhou Dynasty/Warring States faience, glass and other silicate ornaments, as well as their complexity.

Chinese Children's Hats Volume 38.2 Preview

Chinese Children's Hats

TIGER HAT COMBINED WITH SCHOLAR’S HAT, a beautiful example of textile arts and symbolism, 15.0 centimeters wide. These hats were photographed in an improvised studio, on a brass armature, with a black Tufflock backdrop. They were lit with an external flash on a Canon 7D, with or without additional slipon diffuser, besides the Speedlite 580EX’s own translucent diffuser. When we felt the armature was too obtrusive, it was removed using the Photoshop clone tool (Liu 2014). Pam Najdowski Collection. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/ Ornament .

TIGER HAT COMBINED WITH SCHOLAR’S HAT, a beautiful example of textile arts and symbolism, 15.0 centimeters wide. These hats were photographed in an improvised studio, on a brass armature, with a black Tufflock backdrop. They were lit with an external flash on a Canon 7D, with or without additional slipon diffuser, besides the Speedlite 580EX’s own translucent diffuser. When we felt the armature was too obtrusive, it was removed using the Photoshop clone tool (Liu 2014). Pam Najdowski Collection. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

Chinese children’s hats reflect the powerful parental desires of the protective, aspirational and inspirational functions for these attire (Leung 2010, Lin and Lin 1996; Liu and Rossi 1991; Szeto and Garrett 1990). Like Chinese jewelry, they are replete with symbolism, which in turn can be read as verbal rebuses or auspicious sayings by those who are knowledgeable (Bartholomew 2006, Pei 2004). In fact, these children’s hats often have silver components sewn on, thus intermingling textile and jewelry techniques and the similar symbolism common to both (Duda 2002).

 

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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His new book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to ornaments, both in and out of the Ornament studio. This issue he writes about his experiences teaching photography and black bamboo jewelrymaking workshops. Later this year, he plans to teach photography workshops at the Ornament studio. Liu also collaborates with Pam Najdowski about Chinese children’s hats, a disappearing folk art and now a sought after collectible. The images in the latter article were shot in an improvised hotel room studio, demonstrating another easy way to photograph textiles and fiber artifacts.


Educated at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan, Pam Najdowski was a teacher and social worker for the Santa Fe Public Schools for over two decades, as well as school counselor for the International School of Tianjin, China, 2003-2005. She has extensive ethnographic experience with Chinese minorities, having both lived there and traveled almost two dozen times to minority areas of Guizhou, Guangxi and Yunnan. Najdowski has been the guest at two Chinese Folk Art Expos, and conducted extensive research, consultation and lecturing on Chinese minorities, their textiles, clothing and silversmithing. She operates Textiles Treasures in Santa Fe, New Mexico.