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Southern Silver

Southern Silver

Jan 05, 2017

Costume, and particularly jewelry, plays an integral part in the Miao culture

For ethnic minority groups in the southwest of China, clothes are an integral part of their cultural identity. Most often, traditional costumes in this part of the country use bold colors combined with intricately crafted jewelry. Each ethnic group has its own designs, but the types of jewelry remain roughly the same - crowns, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings and waist hoops.

For the Miao ethnic group, silver is their most prized material. Traditionally a Miao woman cannot get married unless she has silver jewelry to adorn her wedding outfit. Miao parents often begin saving for this jewelry as long as a decade before the wedding.

Yang Guangbin is among the finest Miao jewelry craftsmen in China. One of his most renowned designs is the Miao Silver Flower Crown, which is composed of 66 silver flowers, 51 bud tassels, 12 warriors, six butterflies, six Miao gods, 13 lucky birds and 12 dragons. The design is inspired by Miao legends.

"My son often persuades me to design modern patterns, but I have always reminded myself that without the Miao patterns the silver adornments will lose their cultural bearing," Yang says.

His eagerness to preserve traditional Miao designs has won him several accolades. The Miao Silver Flower Crown was awarded gold prize at the 10th Chinese Arts and Crafts Exhibition, and another design, Wire Drawing Bracelet, is now held by the Chinese National Academy of Arts.

"I am not that conservative in picking the patterns," Yang says. As long as it at least has a Miao connotation, I am happy to blend some new elements into my work."

With years of meticulous observation and practice, Yang has incorporated numerous patterns from Miao batik and embroidery into his silverwork.

"Although the patterns are relatively fixed, when it comes to the details, you have to equip yourself with an acuteness to make even a minute variation."

Creating even the most simple silver bracelet involves four processes. First a silver ingot is melted. This requires both skill and strength as bellows need to be pumped continuously to keep the fire hot. When the silver cools, it is hammered into shape. During this part of the process, if cracks occur the silver must be melted again and the whole process begins from scratch.

Once the silver has been hammered into the desired shape, the artisan trims the edges and welds it where required using a blowpipe.

For finer jewelry the process can be much more complex. To make the flower stalks on a silver crown, for example, the hammering process must be repeated many times to create thin silver slices. Much Miao jewelry also requires fine engraving.

Yang has worked in the "tinkling" business for almost 35 years. "The most difficult procedure for me is the wire drawing, carving and welding," he says.

"If you press it too hard, the silver bullion breaks, but if you are too gentle, you won't get perfect texture. This is perhaps one of the best criteria to judge if a silversmith is skilled enough."

Yang uses a special board cut with different sized holes to transform the silver into threads as little as 0.2 mm in diameter.

This silver wire can be knitted into complex designs such as flowers or butterflies. The Miao regard the butterfly as their original ancestor.

The most typical adornment for a Miao woman on her wedding day is a silver horn crown. Most prevalent in Guizhou province, the crowns can be half as tall as the bride and weigh on average about 2 kilograms. A typical horn crown is comprised of 203 silver pieces knitted and welded together.

Miao women weave their braids into the crown, and straighten it tight by making knots and buns around the gap. Women often wear the crowns during festivals as well as weddings. From a distance, a group of women wearing horn crowns can look like a cluster of glistening stars.

Other common silver jewelry includes hairpins, hats, breastpins, shawls, chest locks, waist chains and finger rings. The silver worn by one woman typically weighs between 10kg and 15kg.

One of the most striking adornments is the silver neck hoop. Miao women often wear dozens wrapped tightly around their necks.

Miao jewelry is a status symbol and often a subject of competition in terms of size and design. A woman with more jewelry may be more likely to attract a man.

"Miao people have a long history of making silver ornaments," says Zheng Zhenze, a researcher at Beijing Folklore Society.

"One reason is that the Miao people don't have a written language, so they put a lot of effort from one generation to another into embedding their ethnic cultural elements, particularly their totems and their history, into silver ornaments that they believe are the best medium to pass on their tradition."