My Miao Embroidery Mistake

Features Editor
The first time I was aware of a people called the Miao was in Yunnan in South-west China. My partner and I had been in China for only 6 months, as volunteer English teachers in Henan province on the great Yellow River plain. And – come the Spring Festival holiday – we had fled that flat, red-grey wintery landscape for the mountains and sunshine of Yunnan.We’d found ourselves in a magical, white-washed small town with a turquoise lake, wild flowering azalea bushes and spiky mountains all around. One day we caught a tractor ride to a market, a few miles outside town. On a bare mountain-side, we witnessed thousands of people, mostly from different Chinese minority nationalities, converging from all directions, with woven baskets on their backs, or driving animals before them. The market was noisy with activity of every kind and everyone seemed in a good mood.

As we moved among the traders and the shoppers, trying not to stare too much at the beautiful traditional dress most women were wearing, some with colourful tasselled headdresses and white smocks, others all in indigo blue – we noticed some women who were selling embroidered textiles. The colours were extraordinary – shocking pink, vibrant green, bold yellow, all stitched on a background of dark blue. The style was unlike anything we had ever seen – a kind of mixture of surrealist shapes, pop art colours and 17th century stump work. I know now that these women were Miao, and that the Miao are famous for their embroidery, as well as for their jewellery-making and their music.

My husband immediately spotted a shoulder bag that was exceptionally colourful and was a complex design of flowers and birds. I thought it was our terrible Mandarin, or the fact we were more or less the only foreigners at the market, but as we bargained, the women selling the embroidered bags were convulsed with laughter. They were giggling and talking to each other non-stop; and when we finally concluded the deal and my husband hung the bag over his shoulder and walked away, they could barely contain themselves for laughing.

Walking behind him through the bustling crowd, I discovered that he was having the same effect on everyone. Stall-holders and shoppers; men, women and girls – everyone stopped in mid-sentence, stared, and then became helpless with laughter, as he went by.

It was only later that we learnt how each Miao embroidery design is deeply symbolic. The designs tell stories from Miao history and folklore; and the women also stitch new designs, making sense with their needles of more recent events. We also learnt that certain motifs and designs are only appropriate for women, some only for unmarried girls. I guess the colourful shoulder-bag my husband bought was one of the latter.

 

Photo-blogger Fiona Reilly from Nanchang Lu joined China Icons on a special assignment to find out more about Miao embroidery…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s