Southwestern China’s Guizhou province is home to the Miao (Hmong), an ethnic minority who originated a thousand miles away in the Yellow River valley and migrated here millennia ago after being chased out of their homelands by the Yellow Emperor, ancestor of the Chinese people.
Miao from different regions of Guizhou have developed their own distinct dress patterns. Both men and women traditionally wear hemp or cotton jackets coloured dark blue with indigo, a natural dye extracted from plants. At country markets you used to find women with enormous woks full of boiling indigo, where people would bring in their old, faded jackets and jeans to have the colour refreshed.
Men’s clothing is plain blue all over, but from a very young age Miao girls learn to embroider bright panels for their festival jackets, collars, protective baby “tiger” hats and baby carriers. These pieces are so intricate that they can take years to complete, and a woman’s skill with a needle goes a long way towards her marriage prospects – though in some areas it’s the girl who chooses her husband, rather than having a marriage arranged by her parents, as is normal in much of the rest of China.
As with many traditional crafts in China, embroidery skills are dying out with the older generation. Younger Miao are too busy with modern life to learn, especially when you can easily buy printed fabrics at the nearest market. Back in the 1990s, nobody in China valued anything old and all you had to do was turn up at a village for people to mob you with pieces for sale. Nowadays old embroideries have become valuable and there are none left in villages, though traditional pieces are still made by older women for sale to museums, collectors and tourists – and the occasional Miao bride wanting an heirloom.
There’s a lot of information encoded in embroideries: the Miao don’t have their own writing, so have passed their legends down in epic poems and through these patterns. Every symbol has a meaning, from good-luck swastikas and geometrical patterns representing mountains and plants, to more obvious figures of heroes, animals and mythical beasts.
Panel from the Taijiang region, showing Chiyou and dragons. In Chinese lore, Chiyou (蚩尤) was a fierce, demonic warrior who ate iron and stone and invented bladed weapons. He’s described as having a human body with the hooves of a bull, six hands, four eyes, huge teeth, and a bronze head with horns.
At the battle of Zhuolu – which lasted for ten years – Chiyou fought for supremacy against the fire deity Yandi and the Yellow Emperor, legendary ancestor of the Chinese people. In one episode from the war, Chiyou magically called down thick mists to confuse the enemy generals, but they used a compass to find their way out of the fog. According to the Chinese bestiary Shan Hai Jing,Chiyou later asked wind and rain gods to conjure up a storm, only to have the Yellow Emperor send his daughter Ba, a drought goddess, to counter them, and Chiyou was defeated by the winged dragon Yinlong and killed. After his corpse continued to run about, the Yellow Emperor had it manacled to a maple tree.
Alternative legends describe Chiyou as a rebel who corrupted mankind and caused the gods to sever the bridge between heaven and the earth. Historically, it’s plausible that the various myths are folk memories of conflicts between rival kingdoms in the Yellow River valley around 2700 BC. The Han-dynasty historian Sima Qian (c.145–86 BC) wrote that Chiyou was worshipped as a war god into his own times.
The Miao consider Chiyou as their ancestral leader. In their mythology he rides a dragon, and his horns connect him with buffalo, themselves a symbol of physical power and agricultural fertility. After Chiyou’s defeat by the Yellow Emperor, his son led the Miao out of central China to their current homelands in the southwest.
The first pieces I bought were around 1998 at a market in Chong’an village, off these grannies from Yan Zhai village. They told me that each panel took about a month to embroider.
Although seemingly abstract, they all have symbols representing butterflies and jiyi birds (see below); the top two also have swastikas and savastikas, a good-luck sign through much of Asia. Thanks to Li Maoqing for decoding these traditional patterns.
These antique panels depict the Miao’s creator spirit Mai Bang, Mother Butterfly – she’s at top and bottom of each panel, looking a bit like a flower. An epic poem tells how, after being born from the heartwood of a maple tree, she is rejected by the Jiwi Bird but mates with Wave Foam and gives birth to twelve eggs. The Jiwi Bird incubates them for over sixteen years, until the young inside smash out through the thick shells with the help of a god’s knife. The hatchlings include the guardian deity Gha Hva, Jang Vang (the ancestor of all humans), Thunder, Water Dragon, Tiger, Snake and Elephant. One final egg becomes a demon who eats sows.
Dragon’s umbilical cord, cut with a copper knife, becomes Turtle; Thunder’s cord becomes the Earth Deity, whose shrines guard the western side of villages; Jang Vang’s becomes rice and ferns; Tiger’s becomes wildcats, wolves and foxes; and Elephant’s becomes the dliang ge ghost, who eats chickens and inflicts most harm on rich people. Snake teaches women how to make gu, a poison which causes noxious creatures to grow inside the bellies of its victims. The remaining eggshells transform into the clouds and sky.
The Jiyi Bird is Mother Butterfly’s sister, transformed from the branches of the maple. She incubates Mother Butterfly’s eggs for sixteen-and-a-half years, enduring bad weather, loss of her feathers, boredom and finally anger at what seems such a pointless task. She quits several times but is lured back by gifts of a hillside and a mountain forest; even so, she is ready to give up for good when she hears the first human, Jang Vang, calling out from inside his egg, encouraging her to continue incubating for just one more night.
Fish, used as a pun on the word for “surplus” elsewhere in China, here represents fertility. The dragon is a symbol of power to the Miao, not a stand-in for the Chinese emperor. Both panels are from the Leishan district, and feature extra butterflies and jiyi birds.
For more about the current state of Miao embroidery, try this 30min documentary, in English, which also features the same grannies in Yan Zhai village that I got my pieces from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKQl4in-ikQ