Virtues of: Miao Culture, China
Words by Sharon de Lyster for The New York Times T Mag Singapore, Photos by Stephanie Teng, Cary Ho and Sharon de Lyster
In the Guizhou province, China - The Miao people, estimated at 5 million, forms one of the largest ethnic groups of the country.
As one of the earliest ethnic groups mentioned in ancient Chinese annals, the Miao have managed to preserve their ethnic identity to the present day. Their history is closely related to the formation of the Han culture. Recent archaeological and linguistic discoveries tend to corroborate ancient texts and myths; they point to the early presence of Miao groups in the middle basin of the Yingtze River.
A people without writing, the Miao perpetuated their archaic traditions through the transmission from generation to generation of their ancient songs, textile techniques and patterns, silver jewellery, hairstyles and animist faith. Each clan distinguished itself mostly via their women’s costumes, therefore creating an amazing diversity of styles, textiles techniques and patterns. Their untainted virtues are subtly threaded through their renowned, museum-worthy textiles. In a world that is constantly chasing for speed, scalability and popularity, the Miao spoke another story. Their language: the simple needle and thread. Their universe: the remarkably respectful lifestyle.
Patience - Needlework is a life-long craft that demands an incredible amount of patience. Within a given Miao community, intricate decoration of costumes, baby carriers or wedding bedcovers was an essential skill that women had to master at an early age. This is to demonstrate their virtues, such as patience, meticulousness, capacity for hard work and good artistic sense, which were considered indispensable to marrying a suitable husband. If needlework was like the young girls’ school subject, then exams would happen during the regular festivals and courtship rituals where they dressed in their most beautiful apparel and even displayed neatly folded wedding bedcovers piled on their back for everyone to contemplate.
Practicing restraint - Besides their practical functions and their decorative dimensions, the costumes also represent benchmarks for one’s age, child, adult or elder, and marital and reproductive status, not yet married, married or having given birth. The most glamorous costumes normally belong to young, unmarried females. In contrast, the costumes for married women tend to be plainer. By the time one reaches old age, one might even dye the colourful embroidery from a costume into a dark blue or black colour to not compete for attention with the young women.
Genuine praises - Quite a contrast to the modern sales advice, if the Miao women want to present the outcome of their hard work, why do they put their embroidery mainly on the back of their costumes? The sewing and embroidery skills of Miao women form the basis of their assessment by their own ethnic community. From such skills, one can tell how intelligent, how wise, how diligent and how virtuous they are. Therefore, the finer the sewing and embroidery work, the better the temperament of a woman, which would draw admiration towards her. However, the Miao people feel that admiration expressed behind one’s back is more genuine, hence the Miao have a long tradition of putting their best embroidery at the back.
Modesty - Sometimes there are some “defects” or “omissions” in an otherwise very densely embroidered piece. The Miao women think that humans should not think of themselves as perfect or completely faultless. Embroiderers deliberately leave some small defects or omissions on their pieces, to allow room for improvement by the next generation; so that the art of embroidery can be passed onto future generations, hoping that it gets better and better with time, from one generation to another.
Respect for the ancestors - The Miao is an ethnic group with long history of migration and misery tracking back to when they were they were defeated by the Han in battle, and were forced to move from the lower reaches of the Yellow River then to western Hunan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Yunnan, Southeast Asia and other places. They express their fond memories of the ancient homeland by transferring the remembrances of their native landscape into graphical form in the embroidery of baby carriers and costumes.In the embroidery of many baby carriers from central and western Guizhou, there are two or three small squares above a big square, apparently symbolizing the ancient Miao towns and cities. On many Miao pleated skirts, there is a row of men on horseback on their silver crowns crossing a bridge in cross-stitch embroidery, illustrating their long history of migration. They did this to preserve their cultural heritage, out of respect for their ancestors and to remember their previous homeland.
For the Miao, their costumes are their history book, their personal narrative, their moral compass.