Zhuang Xueben in Western China: Anthropological Photography from the early 20th Century

Museum of Ethnic Costumes, Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology

As the most important scholar of anthropological photography in the early 20th century of China, Zhuang Xueben (1909-1984 AD) took trips to the deep of China’s western areas including Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan where the ethnic minority groups such as Qiang, Tibetan, Yi, Tujia, Dongxiang, Mongol, Bao’an, Nakhi, etc., live in clusters, contributing to research reports and journals with hundreds of thousands words and more than 3000 photos recording the daily life, religions, garments & adornments, products, geographic environments, etc. of these ethnic minorities. These pictures regarding garments, accessories, daily life, religions, geography, etc., which were taken in specific themes in light of anthropological research, count as exceptional pieces of art while boasting high academic value for anthropological studies.

Black Yi Girl in Xichang

Hairstyle: Having hairs uncut since a little girl, females of the Yi ethnicity would first comb one single braid hanging on the back of head, adopt a bun hairstyle when grown a little older and start to wear two braids from the day of getting married. And in some cases, females who reach adulthood but are not yet married are also allowed to wear twin braids after an official ceremony held on an auspicious date.

(Quote from page 29 in A Research Report on the Yi People in Xikang by Zhuang Xueben)

Black Yi Lady and her maid

Females of the Yi ethnic minority group wear pleated skirts instead of trousers. The length of skirts is an indicator of class. Those worn by Black Yi women, usually from noble families, are long enough to touch the ground, stirring a cloud of dust when the wearers walk, while the White Yi females, commoners in most of the cases, wear skirts that only stretch to ankles, allowing them to walk freely.

Black Yi Lord and his servant

Named “guobian” servants in Mandarin (literally meaning “around the stove”), the servants in this photo belong to the lowest rank of servants. In the past, there were 90 “guobian servants” for every 100 Black Yi households. Seen as property of the owner, this rank of servants can be traded with a certain price, once 40 taels of silver, equivalent to 100 yuan in the currency released in the Republic of China (1912-1949 AD).

Noble Qiang Woman in splendid dress and adornment

The nobilities are from the Rong ethnic minority while commoners are Qiang people.

Practice of Sorcery by Su Nie

“Su Nie” is the name for sorcerers in the Yi ethnic group. Legend says that Su Nie was born a common person but became mentally ill once because he was possessed by a ghost. After a ceremony of offering sacrifices of white sheep and white cocks in the woods, Su Nie was cured and came into possession of sorcery.

With no sacred written texts, Su Nie worships many gods and use sheepskin drum on rituals. When practicing sorcery, Su Nie would jump in circles and chant mantras while hitting the sheepskin drum until he shivers all over and mouths the instruction by god. When Su Nie practices the magical arts, there is usually another man holding a wood fork jumping and spinning together with him.

Although most Su Nie are men, in rare cases Su Nie can be a woman . Responsible for treating illnesses and settle disputes, female Su Nie hold similar sorcery rituals as male Su Nie. While also using cocks, pigs, cows or sheep as sacrifice, female Su Nie do not attach a tree branch to the sheepskin drum while hitting it. Sometimes female Su Nie would even lick a glowing sickle or plough blades.

(Quote from page 123 in A Research Report on the Yi People in Xikang by Zhuang Xueben)

Woman with Tattooed Arms in Yanyuan

Tattoo on Women

Women of the Yi ethnic group usually wear several to a dozen tattoo-like pea-sized dark blue spots or scars on each arm, done by inserting a self-made mixture of white wax, ay tsao leaves and a special liquid into the skin with needles. The Yi people call this “mantsa”, equivalent to the meaning of tattoo.

Ethnic Costume Museum, Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology
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