2016

Miao Intangible Cultural Heritage  —— Embroidery

Museum of Ethnic Cultures, Minzu University of China

While embroidery has a long tradition in China, the origins of Miao embroidery are shrouded by history. The first written record of the ancestors of the Miao is in the Book of Han, which suggests that Miao embroidery was being produced as early as the Warring States Period. The Miao do not have their own written language, and their embroidery itself takes on the role of documenting their history and culture. Miao embroidery motifs handed down from generation to generation not only reflect the world view, values and aesthetics of the Miao, they also illustrate their history and religion and the social changes they have undergone over the centuries. This makes embroidery an extraordinary medium for expressing and preserving Miao culture.

Art of Threads and Needle
Embroidery is a traditional folk art of the Miao people.  Historically, Miao embroidery has been considered one of China’s five great traditions of embroidery.

It is a craft handed down from generation to generation among Miao women, who produce works of art inspired by traditional Miao songs and legends.

Depicting both people and nature, they combine mythology with creativity using an exaggerated, distorted, and abstract style to produce vivid, fantastical designs.

When they aren’t working in the fields, women meet up to sew.

Spreading out their needles and threads, they make small talk, and spy on each other’s work for inspiration.

Time quietly flows by to the rhythm of the stitch.

Pass on the Tradition

In Miao villages, girls begin learning embroidery from their mothers and aunts at a young age. Starting from the age of fifteen or sixteen, girls begin to hand embroider their own dowry, an ornate embroidered garment that will take several years to complete. While they work they are not only refining their skills as embroiderers, they are also coming to know their own culture. Each pattern illustrates a specific aspect of Miao culture and history, making embroidery an extraordinary heritage that is vital to preserve.

The embroidered clothing of the Miao are walking history books, with the memories of generations of ancestors stitched into every unforgettable motif.

In order to make the different colors of thread easier to find, they are often tucked between the pages of a book. Every Miao woman has her book of threads, some use old books lying around the house, while others make their own by pinning together loose sheets of paper.

In the early 20th century, Christian missionaries traveled the Qingshui River to distribute Bibles, which Miao women eagerly accepted, much to the missionaries’ joy. Their joy was short lived, though, when they discovered that the women did not read the Bible, but instead used it to sort their threads.

Miao embroiderers often use a braided thread 1-3 millimeters in width in order to embroider designs with decorative lines, adding texture and dimension to the cloth. These threads come in a wide variety of combinations, often including combinations of 8, 9, 12 or 14 strands.

Styles of Miao Needlework
The Miao embroidery has a great abundance of needleworks, which makes the embroideries vivid and unique. Here are some of the examples:

Poxian (Split-thread) Style Needlework

The thread for Poxian style needlework is usually 1/8-1/12 sometimes even 1/16 of a normal thread.

Then a single thread are threaded onto a needle and drawn through soft wax folded between a green leaf to lubricate it. The final pattern is smooth, crisp, glossy, tight, and resists becoming soiled.

The pattern is embroidered with a flat stitch, and outlined with a chain stitch border.

Poxian (Split Thread) Embroidery is a painstaking, time consuming process, and as such it is normally reserved for special garments worn only during weddings or festivals. It takes four to five years of work to produce the best of these garments.

Jianzhi Xiu (Paper Cutout) Style Needlework

Miao-style Dazi Needlework

Dui Xiu (Piled-Cloth) Style Needlework

Shuangxian Chongdie (double threads overlapping)Style Needlework

Zhixian Xiu (Straight line) Style Needlework

Tiehua Xiu (Flowery Pattern Patch) Style Needlework

Jiao (entwined) Style Needlework

Tiebu Xiu (Cloth-Patched) Style Needlework

Pingpushi Bian Xiu (Flat Braid) Style Needlework

Bolangshi Bianxiu (Wavy Braid) Style Needlework

Traditional Patterns of Miao Embroidery
The traditional religion of the Miao is a form of Animism that views man as an inseparable part of nature. To this day, the Miao revere the spirts of nature, and illustrate them in their embroidery. Among the Southeastern Miao, their clothing is decorated with vibrantly embroidered dragons, chickens, ducks, geese, cattle, lions and dogs, and dozens more. These animals may be depicted alone, while other times they are depicted with people, flowers and fruit trees. The lines dividing species are often blurred, sometimes depicting animals with human heads, or just as easily, blending combining different animals. These fantastical designs do more than simply depict the natural word: the illustrate the spiritual world that the Miao find in nature.

In the center of every Miao village stands a gigantic maple tree. The Miao call the maple tree the “Mother Tree” .

In the Miao religion, maple tree is the source of life, the mother of all things.

Thus, it is a key motif in Miao embroidery, representing the hope that humanity will continue to spring up, generation after generation, like the shoots form the seeds of the maple tree.

In the traditional songs of the Miao, they sing of their ancestor the butterfly. It was the maple tree, the Mother Tree, that gave birth to the Butterfly Mother, who in turn gave birth to the first two Miao ancestors, Jiang and Yang. For this reason, the butterfly motif can be found embroidered on clothing, drawn in pictures, and even found in ancient sites of worship.

In the village of Shidong, on the Qingshui River, every time a baby was born, a child-carrying wrap embroidered with the Butterfly Mother motif was sewn for the infant to ensure the child would grow up healthy and strong.

Swirling waves in whirlpool motifs symbolize the rushing rivers that are integral to Miao history.

The rivers chart the progress of the long, slow migration of the Miao from their earliest ancestors who lived near the Yellow river, to the rivers of Guizhou where many Miao live today.

These motifs normally adorn the shoulders of the jackets worn by Miao women.

The Miao celebrate the enormous fecundity of fish, and the fish motif is used to express a wish for many sons and good fortune.

Additionally, the fish can be a symbol of their ancestors, who once cultivated fish and rice around Lake Tai in modern-day Wuxi, Jiangsu province before they followed the rivers up into the mountains.

In traditional Chinese culture, the dragon is a protector of the peace, a bringer of rain, and a symbol of the Emperor, a motif that could only be worn by the members of the royal household. The Miao, however, had no such restrictions on the use of dragons, which are a favorite embroidery theme for people from all walks of life.

Dragon motifs are mainly popular with the Western and Southeastern Miao. In Miao folktales, people can become dragons, as can fish, shrimp, bulls and snakes. The Miao often depict dragons with body parts of one or more of these species.

Fruit trees and flowers are used to symbolize an exuberant profusion of life.

As a symbol of the animating spirit that flows through nature, Miao flower motifs celebrate abundance and vitality.

Miao embroidery is a remarkable artistic tradition. The great 20th Century artist Liu Haisu once said: “As beautiful as the moon stitched with threads of clouds, Miao embroidery outshines the needlework of Suzhou and Hunan.”

Museum of Ethnic Cultures, Minzu University of China
Credits: Story

In Collaboration with Riverbend Academy of Hmongology, Guizhou, China

--- Exhibition Crew ---

Culture Consultants: Yang Peide, An Hong
Project Coordinator: Cecilia Xiong
Exhibition Curator: Lin Wen (linwen@muc.edu.cn)
Chief Photographer: Austin Kramer
Other Photographers: Huang Xiaohai, Shi Kaibao, Lin Wen
Content Writer: Lin Wen
Translator: Austin Kramer, Li Yi, Liu Qing, Lin Wen
Proofreader: Austin Kramer
Video Clip Editor: Lin Wen

--- Mini Documentary Film Crew ---

Director: Lu Ying
Assistant Director: Zhang Te
Video Photographer: Zhi Yuehui, Zhang Te, Ji Xiang
Film Editor: Lu Ying, Zhi Yuehui, Suiwu Changjun
Script Writer: Yang Peide
Script Editor: Lin Wen
Color Adjust: Zhong Rujie, Zhi Yuehui
Music: Audio Jungle
Recording: Chenguang Recording Studio

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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