Reviewed by Kristin Scheel Lunde
This boxed set containing Every Thread A Story and The Secret Language of Miao Embroidery charts the artistry of seventeen villages located in the southwestern corner of Guizhou Province, China. Lavishly illustrated with more than 200 color images of the indigenous cultures of Guizhou, the aim of the book-set appears straightforward: to draw our attention to the unique craftsmanship of intriguing embroidered costumes and silver work created by the artisans of Miao, Gejia, Shui and Dong cultures. Throughout the stories told are examples of the complex role of tourism and the challenging situation facing the villages in regards to maintaining and passing on heritage crafts and traditions to the next generation.
Starting with Every Thread A Story, the book is divided into two parts: part 1 (introduction and background) and Part 2 (A narrative framed through the voices of seventeen craftswomen and men inhabiting the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous region of Guizhou). Part 1 is divided into six sections: map, foreword, preface, acknowledgement, faces of Guizhou, and introduction. Part 2 is divided into twenty-one sections, which are geographically arranged according to the village locations from the north to the south. The sections investigate the different crafts created by the artisans: exquisite embroidery, textile weaving, indigo dye, silver work and paper making. Four of these sections explore the socio-economic and cultural aspects of the villages in relation to crafts and modern society.
Part 1 opens with a map and an overview of the specific locations of the villages we are about to explore—identifying them within Guizhou Province and China proper. In the foreword, which follows, Lee Talbot, Curator of the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, provides a concise overview of the book. The preface then sets out the circumstances that paved the way to Every Thread A Story and is written by Wang Jun, a native tourist-guide deeply connected to Guizhou. Then follows the section, “Faces of Guizhou,” which presents a series of illustrations of the nature and the people of Guizhou. The introduction opens with a verse of a song, “Westwards, Upriver.” This song, we learn, is one of the many Miao epic hymns that form the essence of Guizhou culture, which are also deeply connected with the ancient crafts of indigo clothmaking and textile embroidery. Without a written language of their own, the indigenous culture of Guizhou has relied on songs, tales and stories to ensure that their traditions, know-how and technical expertise have been handed down through the generations.
A substantial part of the introduction takes us into the heart of the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, home to many indigenous cultures and a wide variety of crafts. The makers and their materials are sumptuously illustrated, and Karen Brock and Linda Ligon have produced a richly informative account of the essence of the local craftsmanship. Costumes are made with local materials and dyes, and, with nature in mind, the textile production follows the rhythm of the seasonal changes. Based on nature’s calendar, the process of textile making is slow but organic; it involves the raising of silkworms, hand-spinning, and the weaving and dyeing of cotton, hemp and silk based on what nature can provide. We learn about the time-consuming process of producing costumes, which, with the exquisite embroidery and elaborate jewelry, may take up to a year.
The introduction includes a historical account of the movements and migration patterns of the Miao, Gejia, Shui and Dong cultures over time until they settled in Guizhou Province. This is followed by an interpretation of the hardships that grew out of the conflicts with the Chinese Government, particularly the lack of full recognition of the indigenous identity of each village. There are many subgroups within the Miao minority, and for example, each of these displays their identity through their particular costume styles and visual vocabulary, which are recognizable through the use of certain motifs and design patterns. Another focal point is the relationship between the villages and tourism. Since the early 1990s, the local and international tourist industry has provided much-needed sources of income and infrastructure on the one hand, while on the other hand, tourism threatens the preservation of indigenous culture and the continuity of local traditions. A third challenge is the next generation’s traction toward urban jobs and lifestyles and the fear that the traditions of handmade crafts will be replaced with machine-made ones.
Part 2 expands on the unique types of crafts offered by the local artisans and provides the reader with insights into the various production processes. Fourteen sections capture the comprehensive efforts involved in mastering the many different workmanships at a high level. The first section takes the reader through the myth and symbolic visual language of Miao embroidery transcribed onto costumes. Close-up images of the satin split-thread embroidery work by Tai Lao Xin shows us the exquisite details involved in this ancient craft. The repeated use of patterns and the way in which design areas are built with different patterns set against each other flow in natural sequences. Motifs of human figures and auspicious motifs of the dragon intermingling with birds, butterflies, buffaloes, fish and turtles also relate to ancestral tales and the natural world. We learn how baby-carriers are important functional and symbolic objects. Decorated with iconic motifs that are believed to carry spiritual powers and convey a sense of protective power, babies are carried on the backs of their mothers or fathers—held comfortably in a cloth. In the following section, Li Jin Ying shows us the detailed steps involved in making folded embroidery, a technique involving many tiny rectangles of fine silk that are folded into triangles, stitched atop of one another to create symmetrical designs that are distinct to the heritage and village.
Section three takes us through the technique of wax-resist dyeing, which is unique for Geija culture, with design styles likely rooted in the ancient Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE). Yang Zhen Ying, a master of this style, takes us through the process of creating the distinct design first, then indigo dyeing the fabric for costume making. Motifs such as stylised dragons, fish and elements from nature are recurring designs that embellish the blue cloth. Then, section four looks at the exquisite silver jewelry that is unique to Yongwang Village and the artist Yang Hua. There are many well-illustrated examples of Yang Hua’s work, such as headwear, belts, collars, necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings. Close-up details display the detailed design work of traditional motifs, for example, facing dragons chasing a flaming pearl, which traces back centuries and underscores the deeply rooted historic design tradition that has been handed down through the generations.
Section five investigates the Miao satin stitch technique of Tong Gu Village. Embroiderer Wang Zhu Qin creates a raised design by covering thick paper, cut in her own design, with lavish silk threads in traditional satin stich. The silk felt technique is part of this section and is a unique technique that serves as a ground fabric for embroidering. Yan Lian explains the method of creating silk felt sheets with silkworms arranged on boards—collecting and pressing the silk threads that emerge from the silkworms and layering them on top of each other until they reach the appropriate thickness. The section then shifts to the local markets of the region, contextualizing the commercial aspect of indigenous craft traditions as a commodity. Then follows section six and the silk tradition of Qingman Village. Pan Yan Lian reels the silk she weaves and shows us her other expertise of growing cocoon silk felt sheets, a unique craftwork on which embroidery is applied in a variety of narrow designs from nature, such as fish heads, buffalo horns and bean curd, which carry a symbolic meaning in Miao culture. In this section, we learn about the pleated skirt, which is famous in this region and one of the most attractive features of women’s costumes. The pleats vary in their sharpness and depth according to the cloth and technique and can amount to hundreds in one skirt.
Papermaking is reserved for section seven, with Wang Xing Wu taking us through the ancient hand-made technique. It is one of the few heritage crafts that has become successful in sustaining local jobs by engaging many women and men at different production levels to meet a steady demand of consumption throughout China. Next follows the section “Tradition and Tourism,” which is devoted to the problematic issue facing the villages: how to strike a balance between the influx of tourism sustaining the economy and sustaining the heritage craft work and passing it down to the next generation. Brock, Ligon and Jun bring our understanding of the impact of local tourism up to date, highlighting the progress that has been made in promoting the local tourist industry with the involvement of the government. On the one hand, the improved infrastructure has made the region more accessible to local and foreign tourists, which has raised the demand for local craftwork, as embroiderer Wen Kui Xiang explains how the tourist industry enabled her family to swap an agricultural livelihood for selling their handmade craft to earn more. On the other hand, local celebrations, ceremonies and festivals are gradually becoming more intertwined with tourist visits, and their authenticity and purpose are beginning to be compromised. Certain techniques are gradually vanishing as the next generation may chose an urban work life, Zhou Xiu tells us. She is a specialist in the ancient heritage craft of handmade braided embroidery couched to a panel of fabric embellishing costumes and baby carriers and finds it difficult to pass on the heritage. The section concludes with a series of magnificent head coverings of the wide variety that exists: embroidered round hats, feather-embellished head coverings, silver-decorated headgear, straw hats, and indigo dyed turbans – each particular style symbolising rank, status or position within the group and village, relating to the identity of the wearer.
Upper Wuji Village is known for wax and indigo, and section nine focuses on these ancient design traditions turned tourist-fashion and the success of Yang Wen Xiu. We learn how her popular heritage designs have found their way onto mainstream t-shirts and scarves that are sold beyond Guizhou and the popularity of heritage design transfers as well as the new income opportunities for the indigenous cultures of Guizhou. “Horsepower” is the title of section ten, which discusses the exceptional craft of wrapping horsehair with silk thread, a specialty of Shui heritage and their ancient horse culture. The method results in a strong cord, which, when couched onto indigo dyed cotton cloth for baby carriers or costumes, takes the form of a raised design. Song Shui Xian informs us about the growing demand for this handmade product from all over China, which is contributing to an increase in employment within the village despite the more affordable machine-made versions, which is another example of the challenges facing heritage craft. Two sisters, Wu Meng Xi and Wu Nying Niang, are spinners, weavers, dyers and embroiderers and famous for their needle case making, an example of an endangered craft that has become insipid among the younger generation of Dong culture. Dazzling photographs open section eleven with details of the special folding system of decorated mulberry paper glued to indigo fabric, from which needle cases are made. The section then turns to the interesting architectural details found in and around Dimen Village, such as decorative wood carvings, pottery and ceramic roof tiling systems, which are noteworthy in this region. Section twelve also focuses on Dong culture and the large village Zhaoxing, one of the most popular tourist destinations. The voices in this section include artisans from different generations, who teach a range of craft-making to tourists. The crafts are similar to those of other villages yet distinct to Zhaoxing’s inhabitants, particularly the shiny surfaces of their costumes, which are achieved in a process involving egg white or pig’s blood. Then, section thirteen accounts for the indigo dying method that is characteristic of Miao culture. Gun Lei Diu shows us how she applies wax with a chicken feather and in delicate strokes creates a striped pattern, which, when folded into pleats, turns into an intriguing geometric design, a signature style of Basha Village. The concluding section, “Three Ways of Seeing,” considers the preservation of local ethnic craft traditions in relation to documentation, research and education. As curator, textile collector, conservator and embroidery instructor, the three women critically voice the challenges facing the future of the Miao, Geija, Shui and Dong craft cultures.
A great strength of the boxed set is the space it gives to each textile, craft, and embroidery style, which are deeply rooted in tradition and described in Every Thread A Story. The extraordinary photography coupled with the artisans’ heart-warming and private stories invite the readers to come close to the essence of cultural heritage survival and village and individual identity. It also draws our attention to its complexity and how to successfully integrate new forms of collaborative forces for the survival of an authentic and unique cultural heritage while integrating local and foreign tourism in a sustainable manner. Offering a fuller picture of Miao, Gejia, Shui and Dong culture heritage provides the reader with a greater understanding of the current role of tourism in the region and the complexity facing the next generation.
The symbolic meanings of the iconic embroidered motifs, patterns and designs are more precisely addressed in the second volume of the boxed set, The Secret Language of Miao Embroidery. Zeng Li, Director of Miao’s Tales Costume Museum, focuses on Miao’s ancient embroidery colors and designs and interprets their symbolic meaning in the book, which is an excerpt from what will be a larger work, Earliest Patterns of Miao Embroidery by the same author. The book opens with a dedication to the young Miao generation to “help restore the classic embroidery their ancestors created and that pays tribute to their ancestors’ important contributions to the human costume culture.” To Li, Miao embroidery designs belong to secret codes of a visual language that existed before the written language and therefore these designs are critical to our understanding of Miao heritage and culture. As Linda Ligon rightly states in the preface that follows, exploring Miao symbolic designs deepens our wider understanding of Miao ancestral past and heritage culture; The Secret Language of Miao Embroidery compliments Every Thread a Story as a reference, and as a visual guide, entices us to revisit the different tales in the book. The cultural biography of Miao embroidery is beginning to suffer, we learn in the introduction. Lately, some embroidery designs show color and pattern compromises deviating from the ancient style, Li laments. These types of design manipulations hinder a connectivity to ancient roots as much as they hinder a continuity of cultural heritage. These “culprits” (or contemporary embroideries), consciously or unconsciously produced by the younger generation, threaten a gradual breakdown of the Miao heritage chain. Zeng Li’s investigation of Miao embroideries is supported by a large number of photographed Miao costumes as well as ancient surviving pieces in the family collection.
Moreover, Li has painstakingly travelled to every corner of the Miao villages to connect with village elders and embroiderers to acquire a knowledge of all of the existing Miao designs. Traditionally, village designs were preserved by priests in the village and were handed out as paper cuts for embroiderers to follow, to ensure continuity in the symbolic motifs, pattern and designs. The importance of preserving the design authenticity, therefore, also implies loyalty to the tribe and village, a tribute to their ancestors as well as providing identity to the wearer. The embroideries are interconnected with the universe, Li stresses, and are connected to the laws of nature and people’s understanding of life; the embroideries refer, in a sense, to a “Book of Heaven,” or, to a “Wordless manuscript from Heaven.” With nearly 5000 years of history, the Miao culture exhibits many historic layers, which are visible through the different embroideries and specific design patterns carried on costumes or depicted in stone carvings, ancient pottery and bronzeware. Our understanding of Miao embroideries gradually expands as we experience them in a broader cultural system. While these may offer a sense of historic dating, they also underline the type of cultural transfer that established a visual language, which carried spiritual symbolism.
The next sections then explain the significance of Miao embroideries and original Miao patterns. Li has selected eight symbolic designs: a four-character symbol, a spiral symbol, a mother butterfly symbol, a bird jiyu symbol, a dragon symbol, a flower symbol, an ancestor house symbol, and auspicious creatures symbols, which are organized in a catalogue style. With more than forty colorful images identifying the symbolic embroidery of the Miao culture, an equal number of black-and-white drawings are systemized corresponding to each of the embroidered symbols. The interpretation of each embroidered symbol is well organized with short descriptions including references to the historic past, ancient mythology, humanoid deities, and cosmology. While The Secret Language of Miao Embroidery is commendable in every regard, a minor point that is worthy of examining further is the absence of color symbolism in relation to the pattern and designs. Li, nevertheless, furthers our understanding of the interconnectedness between Miao symbolic embroideries and ancestral roots and also explains the close relationship that exists between the embroidered textiles and the spiritual world and why Miao embroideries should continue to exist, unthreatened, as part of Guizhou’s proud and indigenous craft and textile heritage. As a whole, the boxed set guides us into the unique essence of Guizhou exceptional indigenous artisanal culture and introduces us to the epics that bridge the spiritual realm and the visual culture emerging through embroidered textiles, silver work jewelry, resist-wax designs and indigo-dyed fabrics that are used in ceremonial costumes and local celebrations. I trust that this review will allow readers to appreciate Every Thread & The Secret Language in their full capacity and to gain an appreciation of connecting ancient tradition with modernity and connecting humanity to nature.
By Karen Elting Brock, Linda Ligon and Wang Jun
Colorado: Thrums Books: Schiffer Publishing, 2020
Hardcover, 161 pages, 213 colour illustrations
The Secret Language of Miao Embroidery
By Zeng Li
Colorado: Thrums Books: Schiffer Publishing, 2020
Hardcover, 71 pages, 69 illustrations
Reviewed by Kristin Scheel Lunde