Shanren Tackle the Qike Hunting Song: Repaying Cultural Debts on Jinuo Mountain Posted on 20 Nov 06:42

The relationship between traditional folk music and modern hybrids like folk-rock and world music is a subtle one. Just a few weeks ago I conducted an interview with Liu Xiaojin 刘晓津 of the Yuansheng Foundation. In the interview Liu made the case that modern hybrids tend to dilute traditional culture, hastening its demise. On the other hand, cultural history is inherently a process of borrowing, adaptation, and evolution. Denying traditional culture the right to adapt and change is like caging a wild animal that ought to roam free. How do we resolve this paradox of saving valuable traditions while also encouraging them to thrive in a connected world?

Jiebulu (L), a recognized bearer of intangible cultural heritage for the Jinuo people, working with members of folk-rock band Shanren to develop new forms of Jinuo music. Members of Shanren, L to R: Sam Debell, Xiaobudian 小不点, and Ala 阿拉.

At Tea Horse, our approach to this paradox is to clarify the relationships between cultural roots and their hybrid manifestations, while respecting and encouraging the artists that work on all points on the spectrum of tradition. Clearly many of the oldest surviving traditions in Yunnan are in danger of disappearing, so the work of groups like Yuansheng is essential if we are to preserve an understanding of where we are coming from. At the same time, highlighting the work of modern adapters of those traditions can vitalize dying traditions and help introduce them to new audiences. The key, as I see it, is laying bare the network of influences that come together in an artist’s work. This enables listeners to dig deeper into the tradition, should they so desire, and gives credit and dignity to the bearers of the source tradition.

One folk-rock group in China that is doing a particularly good job of exposing their own cultural borrowings is Shanren 山人乐队. I mentioned these standard-bearers of Yunnanese folk-rock in a recent blog post covering their success on a reality TV music show. Earlier this year the band invited me on a trip to Jinuo Mountain 基诺山 in southern Yunnan, to accomplish just this sort of exposé of their musical influences. You see, the band has been playing a song that originates from the Jinuo people, but because of some miscommunication, the band had been introducing the song on stage as a folk song of the Achang ethnic group. Once they realized their error, the band decided reparations were in order.

After an initial scouting mission to find suitable teachers of traditional music, the band was returning to Jinuo Mountain to study the music intensively, and write a new composition based on Jinuo sources. The entire process would be documented by a film crew, and then cut into a mini-documentary about the creation of the new song. Hopefully, the film would not only debut a new song for the band, but also clarify the relationship between the band’s song and the source material, drawing attention to the depth of the original Jinuo music. Shanren hoped that this positive coverage of Jinuo culture would compensate the Jinuo people for the band’s earlier misattribution.

The completed mini-documentary on Shanren's expedition to Jinuo Mountain. For viewing inside China, try this link. Read to the end for an explanation of why my scraggly mug is the first shot in the video.

The earlier scouting mission successfully located Jiebulu 杰布鲁, a provincially recognized bearer of intangible cultural heritage, and his teacher, Zi Qie 资切, a master of traditional music who heads a cultural center that plays a major role in transmitting Jinuo culture. The scouting mission also helped focus the band’s interest on a particular Jinuo instrument, the qike – bamboo tubes cut to various lengths that are struck with dowels. Traditionally, a Jinuo hunting party would play the qike and sing on the way back to the village to announce a successful hunt. Different songs were sung depending on the nature of their catch. One of the distinctive characteristics of the music is that each member of the hunting party holds only own or two qike, meaning an individual can only create one or two notes. The result is that melodies have to be created collaboratively by the entire ensemble, much in the manner of hocketing, or in the interlocking melodies of the deconstructed gamelans found in Indonesia.

Jibulu's teacher, Zi Qie, explaining the use of an ingenious Jinuo whistle.

I was excited to join the trip, not only for the chance to learn about Jinuo music, but also to see how the cultural dynamics would play out. As folk-rock celebrities in China, Shanren would undoubtedly be given the royal treatment visiting a small town. But would they get the cooperation they needed to make the project a success? Local government offices will always be involved in any cultural undertaking of this nature in China, and they are often unwilling to take risks that might lead to bad publicity. And what about the Jinuo tradition bearers? Would they have any concerns about how their culture would be represented to the world?

In the first days of the trip, these issues were discussed at length with representatives of the local Intangible Cultural Heritage Office and Zi Qie and Jiebulu, our Jinuo music masters. Consensus was quickly reached. From an artistic point of view, the main concern was that the final product be distinctively Jinuo. Thus, it was agreed that the creation of the song would be a collaborative process between Shanren and the Jinuo musicians, but Zi Qie and Jiebulu had the final say to ensure the song used in the film was an accurate representation of their culture. If the band needed another version of the song that was more suitable for their performances, they could arrange this version at a later time.

Members of Shanren, Xiao Ou 小欧 and Xiaobudian trying out traditional Jinuo attire.

What interested me most about these discussions was the degree of cultural savvy displayed by Zi Qie and Jiebulu. They clearly understood both the necessity for broader recognition of their culture, and also the danger of creating misperceptions. Jiebulu clearly expresses these sentiments in the film, but I will also add that he repeatedly emphasized the need to make Jinuo music more accessible to young people, otherwise the tradition might be lost. He valued the insight provided by Shanren regarding what would be appealing to young music fans, but was cautious about watering down the tradition to the point that it lost its distinctive qualities. Both Jiebulu and Zi Qie felt that the final product should use the intro-body-bridge-climax-outro format of popular music, since without these aural cues, young listeners tend to find traditional music redundant. The lead singer of Shanren, Qu Zihan 瞿子寒 summarizes the outcomes of these discussions quite well in the film, so I won’t belabor the point, except to say I was impressed by the high degree of sensitivity and self-awareness displayed by Zi Qie and Jiebulu with regard to their traditional music.

The real “meat” of the trip was the process of studying and selecting traditional qike songs, and coming up with a suitable arrangement. I thoroughly enjoyed being a witness to this highly creative endeavour, and I have to say the whole thing went fairly smoothly considering how many creative voices were involved. The hitches were primarily logistical. Many of the traditional musicians participating in the project also worked at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Office so they needed time off for rehearsing and recording. While the office was clearly in favor of making the project happen, they still had to justify to their superiors the large investment of time and personnel, and it wasn't always easy to get everyone in the same place at the same time.

Xiao Ou and Ala in rehearsal with Jiebulu.

Our talented camera crew found the location for the final video shoot in a remote village about one hour’s drive up into the jungles. The hope was to shoot in a traditional Jinuo village, but there just aren’t many left, so everyone settled for a village of another ethnic group whose architecture resembles traditional Jinuo architecture. I regret to say I don’t remember the name of the ethnic group. They were an essentially undocumented people whose members occupy only a handful of mountain villages in the area. As surprising as this sounds, it is not uncommon to find “stranded” ethnicities in southern Yunnan who were either too small to be officially recognized as an ethnic group, or were folded into a related ethnic group when government anthropologists were surveying and classifying ethnicities within China in the 50’s and 60’s.

Lead singer of Shanren, Qu Zihan 瞿子寒, goes over the Jinuo language lyrics with Zi Qie just before the shoot.

Shooting the performance of Qike Ami, Shanren's new not-quite-Jinuo song, in front of a traditional not-quite-Jinuo house.


 I’ve already written far too much about an experience that is already well documented in the video above. My only wish is to add some nuance and highlight some themes that repeatedly crop up in the work we are doing at Tea Horse. To wrap up I will just point out that I was simply a guest on this trip, coming along to enjoy the experience and hopefully get a good blog post out of it. At best I hoped some of the footage I took on my new camera would make it into the film (which it did), but I was completely bowled over when I watched the final cut and saw that my face is the first thing to appear on screen! Everyone on the trip did a short interview on camera, and somehow my interview segment was deemed to be a suitable introduction to the project. Truly, it is my honor to speak on behalf this project, both in the film and here in the blog, and help Shanren bring attention to the unique qike music of the Jinuo people. It was an immensely satisfying trip to take part in due to the fun-loving nature of the Shanren crew, and the incredible generosity and patience of our Jinuo hosts. 

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2016 Yuansheng Festival Schedule and Ticketing Information Posted on 19 Nov 03:29

An Interview with Liu Xiaojin, Founder of the Yuansheng Indigenous Music and Dance Festival Posted on 12 Nov 20:59

The 2016 Yuansheng Indigenous Music and Dance Festival will be held in Kunming Nov 28 - Dec 2, bringing together over 200 rarely seen traditional performers to celebrate the beauty and diversity of Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures. With the festival nearly upon us, Tea Horse decided to sit down with Yuansheng founder Liu Xiaojin 刘晓津 and learn more about the activities of the Yuansheng Foundation, and what to expect from the festival.

Tea Horse: What inspired you to found Yuansheng? When did it get started?

Liu Xiao Jin: The Yuansheng Foudation 源生坊 was formed to continue the work of its predecessor, a rural folk arts school called the Yunnan Ethnic Minority Institute 云南民族文化传习馆, founded by the classical composer Tian Feng 田丰. Even by the late 80’s Tian Feng realized that entire categories of folk music and dance were being lost with the passing of old masters who never had to opportunity to teach their art to younger generations. Thus he founded the Minority lnstitute in 1994, using private funding to provide stipends to teachers and students from the Yi, Hani, Naxi, Tibetan ethnic groups.

I first became involved in the school in 1997 because I was shooting a documentary film about Tian Feng and his work. I documented the progress of the school through 7 years of shooting, eventually releasing the completed film the Chronicle of the Minority Institute 传习馆春秋. Later, the school ran into legal and financial problems and had to shut down in 2000, and Tian Feng died shortly thereafter. At that point, I founded Yuansheng to continue his work, but in a different format. Rather than run a school with a single campus, I used donor funding, initially from the Ford Foundation, to pay traditional master artists to run classes in the villages where they live. Starting with the dozen artists that taught at the Minority Institute, we slowly expanded to our current roster of over 200 artists.

TH: Tell us about your artists support program? What do the artists do in exchange for support?

LXJ: We fund our artists with a stipend so they can run classes in their home villages, often divided by age groups. We work with our artists to develop a curriculum so we can assess student progress, and provide cash rewards to students who  succeed in mastering the most critical components of the tradition, whether it be music or dance. Our sponsored artists also participate in performance tours, and in the Yuansheng Festival, which gives them recognition beyond their home villages. 

TH: Has the program been effective at preserving traditional arts?

LXJ: All of these elements of the program were developed to address particular problems that were interfering with the successful transmission of these arts. It is not just a matter of supporting artists, they also need respect, and they need to exist within a community that values their art. For example, the artists themselves asked us to find performance opportunities for them outside their communities, which gives them a sense of being respected as artists, and provides a sense of pride in their traditions. The local communities also take pride in their traditional artists when they see how well they are received by the outside world. This in turn attracts more young people to study the tradition and take an interest in their culture. We are pleased that young people have now successfully mastered dozens of traditions that were once in danger of dying out.

TH: What can the audience expect from this year’s Yuansheng Festival in Kunming? How is it different than other ethnic minority performances the audience might have seen?

LXJ: First of all, there is simply no other way to see these diverse traditions in one single place, over the span of a few days. It has taken us over twenty years to develop this roster of artists. They are not performers you would simply run into if you went travelling in Yunnan. Secondly, the Yuansheng Festival represents the most traditional music and dance from the most remote mountain villages. We only support artists who were taught in the traditional manner, and who have not absorbed or introduced modern influences into their work. Audiences should expect music and dance that transports them hundreds of years back in time, if not thousands. They will witness ritual music, love and courting songs, work songs, and community dances that were part of the fabric of ethnic minority societies before the modern era. Thirdly, we require our artists to wear clothing that is true to the roots of their cultures. Many of their costumes are hand-produced heirlooms that you are unlikely to see outside of museums. That alone would be worth the price of admission!

The ethnic song and dance troupes you normally find in China have made alterations to the music, the dance, and the costumes, all in hopes of attracting contemporary audiences. Often they have commercialized traditional culture in a way that destroys the inherent beauty of these traditions. We prefer to let the distinctive beauty of traditional culture speak for itself. It is a quiet beauty, but it is there, if people are willing to listen.

TH: With your focus on the most unadulterated traditional arts, how do you feel about evolution, artistic innovation, and absorption of outside influences within these traditions?
LXJ: This is what we fear the most. There is already so much of this happening, so we choose to stand on the other side of things, and fight for the preservation of the most traditional art forms. As long as artists are clear about their influences, it shouldn’t be a problem if they borrow from or adapt ancient artistic traditions, but that is not what generally happens. Instead many things are presented as traditional when in fact they are not. This leads to the dilution and eventual destruction of humanity's artistic heritage. At Yuansheng we try to counter this trend by identifying and supporting artist and tradition bearers who have minimal influence from modern cultural forms. 

Tickets for the 2016 Yuansheng Indigenous Music and Dance Festival can be purchased through the Kunming Theater ticket office: 0871-63169950
A full English schedule of events will be available soon on the Tea Horse Blog. For a Chinese schedule of events, and future updates, please subscribe to the Yuansheng Weixin account: 云南源生坊民族文化发展中心
Please enjoy the pictures below (courtesy of Yuansheng Foundation) from the 2015 Yuansheng Festival for a taste of what this unique event brings to Kunming:

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Left Foot Dance of the Yi Posted on 22 Oct 04:01

The Yi people are one of the most diverse ethnic groups within China, spread out over three provinces and encompassing at least six mutually unintelligible language groups. The musical practices of the various Yi groups are equally diverse. If you follow the Tea Horse Youtube channel, you’ve already heard the music of the Sani people, a relatively small and isolated Yi sub-group from the Stone Forest region of Yunnan.

 Today we will shift focus to the Yi people of Chuxiong Prefecture. With a total Yi population of over one million, Chuxiong is the one of the largest concentrations of Yi, second only to the Liangshan region of southern Sichuan. As such, the Yi traditions of Chuxiong can be said to be somewhat more representative of the core Yi culture, even though the prefecture still encompasses a wide variety of local traditions.

 One of the best-known musical styles within Chuxiong is the Left Foot Dance of Mouding County. Its lively melodies and relatively easy to learn dance steps have helped to popularize it, particularly in the larger cities of Yunnan Province where it is not uncommon to see people of all ethnicities dancing in public squares to prerecorded versions of these traditional melodies. In Yunnan’s capital of Kunming there are enough transplants from Mouding County to support traditional public dances with live musical accompaniment. You can see one such musical gathering in the video below, taken at Green Lake Park in Kunming.



 In addition to the erhu 二胡 and jinghu 京胡, bowed instruments found throughout China, the Left Foot Dance makes use of one of the most characteristic Yi instruments: the xianzi 弦子 (if you don’t know how to pronounce Mandarin, try saying “shyen-zuh,” stress on the first syllable).

The Mouding xianzi is a short-necked octagonal lute strung with two double courses of nylon strings, tuned in 4ths or 5ths, colorfully decorated, with a dragon’s head adorning the headstock. The xianzi bears obvious resemblance to other Chinese instruments, most notably the yueqin. In fact, in Sichuan Province the yueqin and xianzi are essentially the same instrument. In Yunnan, however, the xianzi has evolved into numerous local variants, almost all of them colorful and fairly distinct from the standard Chinese yueqin. For this reason, I will use the term xianzi to refer to instruments that have a large number of features distinctive to Yunnan’s Yi ethnic communities, even though the terms yueqin and xianzi are sometimes used interchangeably. In addition to the dragon headstock and colorful designs, the xianzi often has a narrower neck and rosette sound holes absent on the yueqin. The xianzi from Mouding is easily recognized from its octagonal shape and bright, almost fluorescent, designs painted on a white background.

Mouding xianzi with the characteristic color-scheme, octagonal body, and dragon head headstock.

The typical yueqin found throughout China.

The xianzi is strummed with a pick. More advanced players will pick the melodies, but often the xianzi is simply used as accompaniment, with the open strings strummed on the downbeats. From a musical perspective, this makes the Left Foot Dance highly inclusive, as a beginning xianzi player is easily integrated into the circle without disrupting the flow of the melody, which is mostly carried by the bowed jinghu and erhu.

The Dance

Throughout Yi culture, music and dance are closely linked. In some areas, nearly every piece of music has specific dance steps that go with it. Within the Left Foot Dance tradition, this proliferation of dances is simplified greatly. Generally speaking, you only see two moves: a side step and a kick. Exactly where the kicks and steps fall is unique to each melody.

Below are two more videos of the Left Foot Dance (recorded on my cell phone, please excuse image and sound quality). By comparing the patterns of steps and kicks you’ll get an idea of how the dance varies from piece to piece.


 Tradition and Contemporary Cultural Relevance

The Left Foot Dance is a living tradition which continues to evolve. New arrangements are written (often for recorded electronic versions), and new instruments enter the tradition – note the kick drum and baritone xianzi in the first video. Even the colorful embroidered clothing worn by dancers is constantly altered by new trends – note the polyester bell-bottoms. Moreover, the tradition seems to remain a relevant part of Yi community life, despite the competition from modern entertainment that is a threat to so much traditional music and dance around the world. As you can see, the weekly dance circle seen in these videos is eagerly attended by young and old alike.

 The staying power of the Left Foot Dance is also attested to by its crossover into guangchang wu (广场舞), eclectic dances to recorded music held in public squares and parks throughout China and primarily attended by urban retirees. The tradition has received further recognition through a folk-rock rendition of some Left Foot Dance melodies recorded by the band Shanren (山人乐队), Yunnan’s best know folk-rock export.

 The diversity of Yi musical traditions makes it impossible to gain an understanding of Yi music by focusing on a single tradition. Nonetheless, we hope these videos can convey the integral relationship between Yi music and dance, and the vitality of Yi musical culture. As we continue our musical explorations in Yunnan, we will gradually stitch together patchwork of musical impressions that will give our viewers an understanding of the rich musical heritage of this region.

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Clothing of the Yi ethnic group in Xiaocun village Posted on 1 Sep 21:28

Traditional dress for women, including an example of the hat that signifies unmarried status, and an Yi shaman, or Bimo.
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Community Dancing of the Yi Ethnic Group Posted on 30 Aug 05:27

One of the highlights of my recent visit to Xiaocun village was taking part in community dances. The steps varied with each dance, but everyone always held hands in a circle and moved slowly around the fire. The grips also changed with each dance, fingerers interlocked for some, hands clasped for others, and sometimes the dancers just hooked their pinky fingers! The video shows one of the most energetic dances. Be sure to watch to the end so you can see the distinctive hats and dresses of the women.


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Torch Festival Posted on 24 Aug 20:53

Tea Horse is in the middle of an action-packed month! From Aug 6-11 I was in a small Yi minority village in the mountains to celebrate Torch Festival (火把节) and attend a forum on the preservation of traditional culture. Then, from Aug 17-22 I supported Compass World Arts for their world music workshop in Xizhou, a well-preserved old town not too far from my home in Dali. In addition to be being incredibly fun, both activities were helpful in establishing the kinds of partnerships I need to keep Tea Horse moving forward. Now, here at the end of the month, I find myself exploring Northern Laos, searching for (and finding) hand-crafted textile traditions among the hill tribes of Luang Namtha province. So much to get caught up on! For this post I will be focusing on the time I spent in the Yi minority village, Xiaocun (小村)but expect reports on the music workshop and Laos to follow in later posts.

The village of Xiaocun drew my attention because it has chosen a unique path of development, thanks in part to the efforts of Wuli, a visionary young man I met recently at a street art festival. Wuli is a native of Xiaocun, but after having spent his 20’s in Beijing, he has finally returned to his isolated hometown with a unique message. He has convinced his fellow villagers that they need to chart a course of development that can improve livelihoods, while avoiding the pitfalls of overdevelopment, excessive tourism, and the breakdown of traditional culture as seen in tourist hotspots like Lijiang, and increasingly, Dali. At the same time, he wants his village to open up to the right kinds of outside culture: things that will broaden understanding and tolerance, while also helping people to maintain a sense of pride concerning their own cultural heritage. Thankfully there are many other villages in China and throughout Asia who are working on sensible paths of development, but I’ve never before seen a village choose this path so early. Xiaocun may have only 60 households, and not a single toilet, but it has vision and determination to spare!

A typical home in Xiaocun.

The homes of the village are spread out through the valley, rather than concentrated in a single location.

Wuli’s work in Xiaocun includes setting up a business to collect, package, and sell local food products (honey and wild mushrooms), and establishing an ecologically-sound fish breeding pool on the stream through the village. On the cultural front, Wuli hopes to re-establish music, textile, and religious traditions in the village by inviting experts from more populated Yi centers in southern Sichuan Province to spend time in the village. He has already convinced an Yi shaman, or Bimo (毕摩) to relocate to Xiaocun to help maintain their animist faith.


Mushroom hunting with Wuli, visionary, entrepreneur, and Xiaocun native.

Through the forum I was able to meet a young Yi painter and poet, Jike Bu, also from Sourthern Sichuan, who was quite knowledgable about Yi textiles. Jike is already working on turning traditional Yi embroidery into bags, totes, and iPad cases, and she was very happy to work with me on sourcing textiles for my straps. I hope you all agree the traditional embroidered strips seen in the pictures below would make fantastic guitar straps!


The Yi people use these appliqué strips to decorate clothing. For our straps we hope to use similar designs in hand-woven cotton fabrics rather than machine fabrics.

The forum participants enjoyed living and eating in local homes, took part in community dances, and witnessed the dramatic procession of torches on night of Torch Festival. The festival memorializes the semi-mythical vanquishing of a plague of insects by having everyone in the village brandish torches and form a wall of fire to drive the insects out. While its origins lie with the Yi people, torch festival is now celebrated by a variety of ethnic groups in Yunnan province.

Sorry for the horrible sound issues, but I hope the images still convey the excitement of the torch procession. After circling the fire a number of times, the torch bearers marched through the village.

 By the end of the weekend, forum participants and local villagers had discussed plans for a number of projects: promoting the villages products online and in overseas markets, setting up embroidery workshops, bringing outside musicians to play live music for traditional dances (currently danced to recorded music), and improving sanitation to make the town more attractive for cultural tourism and homestays.

Clearly, it was a productive weekend, but the most beautiful part was that all of these wonderful ideas arose spontaneously from our casual interactions at the forum. In fact, in the strictest sense there was no forum! Attendees and villagers freely mingled: no lectures, no panels, no topics enforced. Our discussions were driven by the mutual interests and passions shared by the forum attendees and the local people. This was all in keeping with Wuli’s belief that meaningful change comes about through the self-organizing capacities of willing and engaged participants. Because Wuli is such a dynamic individual I hope to conduct an interview with him in the future to share his vision for approaching the problems of cultural preservation and development. Say tuned for that, and for further updates as I develop guitar straps from the textiles of the Yi people.

Parting shot: my little helper in Xiaocun.

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The Beauty of Miao Embroidery Posted on 9 Aug 00:00

For those intrigued to understand the full range of artistry in Miao embroidery, please check out this amazing online gallery of Miao baby carriers.

Adventures in Sourcing, Part 1 Posted on 7 Aug 00:00

The Importance of Sourcing

One of the big challenges for a handicrafts start-up is sourcing materials. You can find some wonderful textiles in the markets of backpacker towns here in Yunnan Province, but a few textile fragments are hardly enough to build full product line. You’ll need to have a consistent supply if you are going to build a sustainable business from up-cycled products. Furthermore, you’ll want to buy your source textiles at below tourist market rates. For these reasons you’ll want to know the exact source of the textiles you are interested in.

A textile market in Dali, Yunnan Province.

Sourcing can also be a key issue in whether a business contributes to the erosion of traditional arts and culture, or their survival. Purchasing directly from the craftspeople who are still practicing their traditional arts can give them a sustainable livelihood. Purchasing from traders and shops you may inadvertently be buying imitations, lower quality pieces, or pieces made specifically for the tourist trade. More of your money goes to middlemen, and less to the craftspeople you actually want to support. All of these erode the incentives for craftspeople to preserve their traditional arts.

Accurate sourcing will also help you answer a very important question: Is anyone still producing the style of textile you are interested in? The markets and shops in Dali are loaded with heirloom textiles that are no longer being produced. While heirloom textiles can make wonderful collectors’ pieces, you will face serious shortages if you base an up-cycled product line around one of these. At some point the existing supply will be depleted and you will have to discontinue your line. Also, there is something I find distasteful about depleting the supply of heirloom pieces to manufacture a product. Best to let families pass them down generation to generation, or leave them to serious collectors and museums who will preserve and document them.

The Challenge

As important as it is to accurately source a textile, it is not necessarily easy to do. By the time a piece of embroidery reaches a shop here in Dali it may have passed through the hands of multiple traders, erasing all knowledge of its origins. Ask questions in the shops and markets, and you’ll get a thousand different answers. Even asking experts at museums and academic institutions often yields educated guesses rather than definite answers.

This is likely due to the fact of the sheer diversity of textiles found in SW China. Even within one ethnic group there is a vast range of styles. Take the embroidery of the Miao people as an example (known as Hmong outside of China) . Below you can see three different styles of Miao embroidery, all from Guizhou Province, but produced in regions roughly 60 miles apart.


Just a small sampling of the incredible diversity of Miao/Hmong embroidery available in Guizhou Province.

Things are further complicated by the veritable babel of languages spoken here in Yunnan Province. The Bai people of Dali have some trouble understanding the speech of the Bai people of Jianchuan, a mere 75 miles away, and these are large towns connected by modern highways. In the mountains, unintelligibility can be just a few villages away, all the more so if they are villages belonging to two distinct ethnic groups. My knowledge of Mandarin, the lingua franca of the urban areas of China, serves to communicate only the most basic information in the mountain villages of ethnic minorities.

Because sourcing can be such an adventure, we have decided to share some of our experiences in this series of blog posts. Our sourcing attempts have all entailed a bit of wandering and bumbling, and the intervention of serendipity is usually required before we succeed. Stay tuned for the follow up posts on sourcing the tie-dye textiles of the Bai people, and the embroidery of the Black Hmong people of Northern Vietnam.

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