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Tapestries of Miao history

By: By Meena Sreenivasan, New Straits Times (Malaysia) April 17, 2002, Wednesday

EACH tapestry tells a story. With colourful icons of birds, dragons, butterflies and mythical creatures, these works of art date from the late 19th to middle 20th century.

They are beautifully made by the Miao tribe who live in the Guizhou province of China.

Currently on display and for sale at the Oriental Gallery in City Square, Kuala Lumpur, these framed tapestries are great conversation pieces for home or office.

"Although the Miao people had no written language in the past, their costumes reflect a rich history," said Tracy Tseung, owner of Oriental Gallery. "They reveal a colourful history and life.

"Years ago, I visited a local museum in my home province of Guizhou and that was when I found the intricate tapestry of the Miao.

"My interest has now grown into a passion and I want to bring these works of art to Malaysia, especially to antique art collectors.

"I want to tell them that this art form has not vanished."

Her favourites include an ancient embroidered tapestry called The Green Dragons, a piece which tells of a major turning point in Miao history.

"Thousands of years ago, a war was fought between the Miao and Han people. The Miao lost and were banished to the mountains of Guizhou.

"The four small dragons in each corner signify the Miao and Han tribes, and the story relates how the Miao people wished that all dragons would come together again to become one large dragon. It signifies their wish for union and peace," she said.

One will also find embroidered silk baby carriers, elaborately woven from the wrong side of the cloth, interesting as child bearing is considered virtuous.

"In Miao culture, beauty is measured by the number of children a woman bears. These baby carriers become a part of the family's heritage as they are passed on from one generation to the other," she explained.

Another conversation piece is a garment with batik-like designs.

"It is called the 'Moon Mount' and was once a robe worn by a monk.

"The piece, which is dominated by symbols of houses and the families who dwelled in them, was worn by a high priest during a festival held every 13 years.

"It signifies the importance of unity to the Miao people whose faith was concrete and symbolic."

Birds, butterflies, cows, fish and mythical creatures play an important role in the Miao culture.

"The butterflies signify reproduction, while the cows are objects of worship," said Tseung.

"The Miao tribe believed they originated from fish."

Tseung said the gallery would organise a charity auction next month in aid of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation.

Prices for the ethnic Miao tapestries range from RM2,500 to RM8,000 each. ( GRAPHIC: Colourful ... one of the modern embroidered pieces.-By Syaharim Abidin. Rich in tradition ... a shoulder wrap worn by the Miao women.-By Syaharim Abidin.  Dragons in unity ... depicts the war between the Miao and Han tribes.-By Syaharim Abidin.  Ceremonial robe ... a 100-year-old garment worn by the high priest.-By Syaharim Abidin.  Treasured ... an old tapestry from the 19th century.-By Syaharim Abidin.