Some Miao Folklore

Jessy Zhang
Chinese Miao Minority textiles are full of fascinating imagery. Our young Chinese friend Jessy Zhang has kindly made notes on the tales she has heard related by Miao women--stories explaining their popular textile imagery.  Below are some of these accounts, in her own words. 

Jessy has also collected notes on Miao customs and festivals from various Chinese language sources, and excerpts from these are included on a second page. Many thanks to Jessy! 

To see examples of Miao and other Chinese Minority textiles from our gallery inventory, click here
Miao Batik

Miao batik has a long history. In some place they even have batik songs describing the origin of batik. In Song dynasty batik was popular in Wuxi area; from Ming and Qing dynasty many batik cloths were made in Guizhou. Most of the batik fabric has been made into dresses; in some places, people used it for sheets, curtains, etc. 


The procedure: put a white cloth on a table, melt wax in a hot pot, about 60 - 70C, use wax knife to dip the wax liquid, drawing on the cloth. Normally people do not have patterns/designs attached on the cloth ahead of drawing. They just design it whatever they thought. They don't use rulers or compasses either; the middle lines, straight lines and square-round circles could be fixed when folding the cloth. The flowers, birds and fishes on the drawing are vivid. After drawing, they throw the cloth into the dying jar. After dying, they move the cloth into water to boil it. When the wax is melted, the places being covered with wax will appear with white patterns.

A Miao Folk Story about the Origin of Batik

A wise and beautiful girl, who was not satisfied with her only colored dress, had been thinking how to put some flower patterns onto her skirts. She drew some on the skirts, it was too complicated, and she couldn't find out any better methods.

She had been sad about it for days.  One day, again, she was watching at those beautiful flowers, thinking, thinking, and went into sleep.  It was not clear enough, but she saw a flower fairy, wearing a beautiful dress, taking her into a beautiful garden. She saw various flowers, birds, butterflies, and bees there.  She was amazed by them, even when her skirt was full of bees, she didn't know.
When she woke up, she realized that was a dream. She looked down to her skirt, those bees just flied away from the flowers, and kept dots of honey and wax on the skirt, and made her skirt ugly looking. While, what she could do was to throw the skirt into the blue dying jar, intending to get it dyed again.  In order to cover those dots, after dying, she got some boiled water, to wash. When she took the skirt out from the boiled water, she was amazed: beautiful white flowers appeared on the places which were covered by the bee wax! 
Immediately she got some bee wax, got it melt, used a stick to tip some melt wax, drew some wax patterns on a white cloth, and dropped the cloth into the blue dying jar. Then, used boiling water to get rid of the wax. Various white beautiful flowers were shown on the cloth. She got the batik!  She was happy to sing songs. Other women came to see her, listened to her dream, and based on her instruction, began to do the batik works.
Why the batik cloth all in blue color background?  Why there is no red, yellow, green batik?  Because blue is the only color could be dyed in cold water, and for red and yellow, only in hot water could be dyed. But wax would melt, and disappear in hot water.
Dan Village Batik and Its Motifs

Batik in Dan village is famous in Miao's batik. There are eight styles of patterns:
Butterfly Pattern
It was said that the ancestor of Miao was born by the butterfly.  According to the folk story, butterfly was the ancestor of everything in the earth, including fairies, ghosts, human beings, animals, plants, as well as thunder and lightning. So butterflies were respected mostly, and were the important patterns of the batik.
Fish and Bird Patterns
Miao people thought birds stood for males, fishes symbolized for females. Fish with bird patterns meant loved couples.
Centipede Patterns
According to the folk, long long ago, thunder, dragon tiger, snake and centipede were close brothers. Centipede was the youngest, being responsible for farm works, setting up houses, having the grandchildren rich and happy.
Dragon Patterns
Miao people thought that dragon was a lucky animal. But they are not as crazy as Han nationality to treat it. So their dragons were shaped as with bird head and snake body, cow head with fish body, centipede, etc., without a fixed pattern.
Horse's Hoof Patterns
It was said that this pattern was the design by a woman in the imperial house.
Spiral Patterns
A good fortune pattern stood for Miao people to be united forever, being used on the back and the sleeves.
Pear Flower Patterns
It was said, on the way of their ancestors' moving, there was a place where pear flowers were full of the mountain. Having been moving for a long time, they were nearly running out of their energy, when they saw those beautiful flowers, they got encouraged to live. Another saying was that when kids wearing pear flower patterned batik dress, they would be healthy and safer.
Brass Drum Patterns
Used on the quilts putting on the died old person's body.
Other Traditional Textile Arts

Traditional  Miao art works include cross-stitch work, embroidery works, weaving-stitch works, paper cutting works, silver ornaments.  These works are handed down generation by generation.  The traditional styles are saved also;  even today's modern developed market doesn't influence the style. From the patterns, all of the plant or animal shapes are related to Miao's living condition, and the layout of the whole patterns are very much vivid and naturally connected, instead of mechanically being put together. 

Certain patterns have certain meanings: 

Flowers:  beautiful things and young girls.
Birds:  freedom and happiness. 
Fish: next generation's reproduction.
Butterfly: seeking for the root.
Pomegranate: son's prosperity. 
Money/coins: to be rich. 
Long-life character:  endless happiness.
Whirlpool pattern:  missing of the remote ancestor.
Six-ear connection pattern:  the love between male and female.
Among them all, Miao's art works/patterns all the time mean praying for good luck, meaning their ethnic consciousness, meaning to be dignified, mean missing of remote ancestors, culture exchange, beautiful life.  All of these meanings are shaped in squares, circles, ellipses, whirlpools, triangles, diamonds and multi-angle patterns-- lined by straight lines, curved lines, water wave lines, etc.  
A folk story tells the basic Miao idea:  At the very beginning, Miao did have beautiful/colorful dresses. One day a hunting young man got a golden pheasant, and took it back home to his mother. His mother was impressed by its beauty. She used her needle and thread, started to copy this golden pheasant. She got her hair higher according to its feather hair, copied its wing, she embroidered the beautiful sleeves. Based on its colorful tail, she made a pleated skirt and the weaving belt.  And its beautiful legs were similar to the women's leg wrappings.  Since then on, Miao women have been as beautiful as the golden pheasants in the hills. 

The dress styles differed according to their sexual distinctions, ages, and marital status, as well as living places, but the patterns were handed down for generations.  Usually they used red, blue, yellow, white and black colors mainly, in order to keep the five-color-dress tradition, and the cloth was home made from the raw materials in their living sites, such as cotton, hessian, and feather. Miao garments were the history books, put on the body. The patterns were telling you their unique tradition background.  Looking at the colorful lines on the pleated skirts, those were rivers and mountains. And the circled square figures, those were the cities they had owned, including the streets, city walls, and corner towers. The cloud patterns, water patterns and diamond patterns meant the heaven and field in the north; the horses patterns on the belts telling you how their ancestors moved from sites to sites.  The patterns on the garments were the totems on the dresses. Those were the carriers of wordless civilization, to be translated, read and understood.
Several cross-stitch patterns have their own meanings: 

Square: the field/garden in which their ancestors had been living. Being forced to be moved, the later generations put it on their dresses in order to remember their original home land. 
The red line in the square:  it's the fish. 
Figures in the square: river snail and stars in the sky.
Curves lines in the square: trees.
Those were the memorable patterns, not allowed to be changed and forgotten. 
In other embroidery works the patterns were various: most were dragons, phoenix, tigers, foo-dogs, horses, butterflies, fish, birds, fruits and flowers. Although the figures were normally in water cloud figures formed into "S" patterns, water cloud figures were the standard embroidery of Tijiang's. 

In weaving stitch works (woven brocades), most of the patterns were continuous geometric figures--parallel lines in the outside, with rhombus, triangles or single curves inside, and birds or butterfly patterns were made by means of these figures. These kinds of patterns were normally used in sleeves, collars, shoulder parts, or even belts. The patterns were made by a weaving machine, dark blue in warp, other colors in weft.
In Miao's patterns it was said that their ancestors regarded dragon as their totem. And they treated birds instead of phoenix. Because the birds hatched twelve eggs for the butterfly, they thought that birds were one of the ancestors.  According to the tradition, they had a pattern, called wizard with cock, sometimes a wizard was riding on a two-head-cock.  Based on the folk story, butterfly mother were changed from the Chinese sweet gum; she had been living in this tree.  This pattern was regarded as the gods who had the human being recreated. 

This embroidered purse with dragons was made by a Dong artisan. Dong groups lived amongst the Miao In Guizhou province and shared many of their customs and beliefs.

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