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Discover | Monita Roughsedge

The Visual Storytellers of South West China: A Wearable History. Part 3/

The Moon is Made of Silver

The Miao minority group of North West China revere silver. According to one Miao myth, it’s what the moon is made of. Silver symbolises light and health and is believed to drive out evil spirits, divert natural disasters and bring good fortune. Silver is also a symbol of wealth and prosperity. No wonder silver is regarded as the greatest of all metals and is a Miao family’s most prized possession.

The Miao have perfected the art of silver jewellery making on a grand scale. As a part of their storytelling culture, they make necklaces, rings, headdresses, earrings, combs, neckbands, bracelets, pendants and waist hoops – and then, wear them all at once!

For more than 400 years, since the Chinese Ming Dynasty, it has been a Miao custom for girls and women to dress themselves from head to toe with silver.

Left of course for special occasions, a full set of silver adornments can weigh up to ten kilo! The purpose of wearing all this silver is partly aesthetic – the more silver the more beautiful, but it is also worn as amulets to ward off evil, as symbols of wealth and as a part of the Miao tradition of visual storytelling through their crafts and costumes. With patterns ranging from ancestral totems to mystical animals conveying historic legends, every element of Miao traditional clothing relays a strong cultural message, including their extravagant silver.

It starts at birth. As soon as a Miao baby is born they are gifted with a silver necklace to warn off evil spirits. When infants are bathed, parents place a piece of silver into the water to act as a blessing for the baby’s future. If they have girls, families start saving up extravagant pieces of jewellery for them to wear on their wedding day. Originally to symbolise a family’s wealth, this custom is still practiced today but more so to uphold their cultural tradition.

The most typical and flamboyant silver adornment worn by a bride on her wedding day is the horned crown. Comprised of over 200 individual pieces and decorated with dragons, this magnificent head piece is fashioned like ox horns, symbolising a connection with their ancestors and representing luck and heroism, ensuring safety and prosperity for the newlywed couple. Weighing an average of around 2 kilos, this horned crown can sometimes be half as tall as the bride herself.

Although almost exclusively worn by women, it’s traditionally men who train in the art of silver smithing, and in some villages this means all of them!

Most Miao jewellery is still made by hand in the traditional way with numerous processes required to achieve the final product. Silversmiths cut the molten silver into thin strips and fine threads then masterfully weave and engrave until their exquisite patterns come to life. A meticulous and time-consuming process, a crown alone can take 2 months to complete.

Flowers, birds, butterflies and a wealth of other creatures, almost all of the patterns carved and woven into Miao silverwork are a token of auspiciousness and a symbol of ancestral respect. Their silver smithing techniques are inscribed on China’s intangible cultural heritage list and are regarded as the epitome of Miao folk culture and history.

As with Miao embroidery and their other unique crafts, Miao silver work is created and cherished as if an historical journal, sharing knowledge and passing down tales of their ancestors, their culture and spiritual beliefs. For a culture with apparently no traditional written language, they certainly know how to communicate!

The final segment of our 4 part series on Miao visual story telling looks at their exquisite indigo batik work. Don’t miss it!