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ONCE UPON A BUTTERFLY feature

Discover | Monita Roughsedge

The Visual Storytellers of South West China: A Wearable History. Part 1/

Once Upon a Butterfly

A long time ago there was a beautiful butterfly that was born in the centre of a grand old maple tree, or maybe it was a sweet-gum tree, depending upon which version of the story you’re hearing. One day, the butterfly flew over a huge lake and fell in love with a glistening water bubble. After a while, the butterfly laid 12 eggs but the burden of hatching these eggs was too great for such a delicate creature. As luck would have it, the top of the tree miraculously turned into a bird, that became known as Jiwei. The savvy butterfly then enlisted the assistance of Jiwei who took it upon himself to guard the eggs with his life until finally, 12 years later they hatched. From one of these eggs came a boy and a girl, from the rest, the animals of the Chinese zodiac emerged to roam the earth and keep the people company.

This is a picturesque creation myth of the Miao people, a minority group who live in South West China.

The boy and girl, who came from the butterfly egg, are said to be the ancestors of the Miao people and the animals their companions. The butterfly is thus, the mother of all living creatures and the Jiwei bird, the father.

There are 56 distinct nationalities in China, the predominant being the Han, making up a whopping 90%. The remaining 55 nationalities are referred to as ethnic minorities with the 4th largest know as Miao. Although, the Chinese government actually gave them this name, bundling a number of smaller sub-groups together under the one title, many of who do not speak the same native language and hold different histories and cultures.

With a population of around 9.6 million scattered throughout China, the Miao reside primarily in China’s South West mountainous regions, with almost half living in Guizhou province. Some sub groups, particularly the Hmong, have spread their wings and relocated into the mountainous regions of Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos. Some have moved further afield to the USA, France and Australia.

The traditional religion of the Miao is a form of Animism that views man as inseparable from nature.

They believe that everything in nature has a spirit and these spirits greatly affect their lives. Ancestral worship and shamanism are a part of daily life and folklore and superstition are strong. If a bird flies into a house to nest it means it is time for the human inhabitants to move out. Hunters wipe their crossbows with the blood of the animals they kill to appease the spirits that otherwise may cause injury. Sickness is thought to be the result of evil spirits who lure the soul from the body.

A foreigner once tried to teach Miao children that a lunar eclipse occurs when the earth passes between the moon and the sun. The Miao children thought this was ludicrous – everyone knows an eclipse is caused when the frog spirit swallows the moon! After death, the Miao believe, the soul divides into three: one part remains in the grave, the second joins their ancestors in the next world and the third returns as an ancestral spirit in the shape of a spider whose job it is to protect the family home.

Miao myths describe the creation of the world, the birth and death of the Miao people, their battles and their daily lives. They tell and retells the stories of their past and the hopes for their future. But until the 1950’s the Miao had no written language. Well, none that can be found. But according to the Miao people, they in fact did have a written language but it disappeared when their ancient manuscripts were eaten up by horses!

Without a written language, the Miao people have passed on their history and expressed their culture visually, through their traditional crafts. To this day, the Miao revere the spirts of nature, and illustrate them in their embroidery, silver jewellery and batik work. They are masterful storytellers and master craftspeople.

Most of this brilliant craftsmanship can be seen in their clothing, especially at festival time, and with a great deal of ancestral worship and celebration of the spirits going on, there are ample opportunities to showcase their skills. In fact, Guizhou has more festivals than any other province in China.

Their lavishly coloured, intricately decorated clothing is not only mesmerising to look at but for the Miao, it is also an indication of social, economical and ethnic status. Whether or not a woman is married, how well off she is as well as which sub-group she belongs to can all be determined by her dress. The designs on their clothing are deliberately meaningful, depicting ancient totems and retelling historical legends, so much so that their elaborate attire is now referred to by historians as a “wearable history book”. And if you look closely, you’ll almost always find a butterfly.

Don’t miss the second of our four-part article on the Miao people – “Stitching Stories”, covering their exquisite and unique Embroidery.