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New Installation: Miao Masters of Silver

The Bowers Museum's new Miao Masters of Silver installation.

Quarter of a Thousand Shining Moons

The Bowers Museum is reopening its doors to the public this Saturday, September 12 with a brand-new installation in our East West Bank Gallery: Miao Masters of Silver. Due in large part to the generous support of Anne Shih, the Bowers owns perhaps the finest U.S. collection of textiles and silverwork made by the Miao culture of southeastern China. In autumn of last year, the museum decided to permanently display this collection and began to polish, curate, and design an installation of over 250 incredible headdresses, combs, earrings, necklaces, breastplates, bracelets and more. This post offers a teaser of the incredible silver on display in the exhibition and takes a closer look at how they fit into a larger historical context, how they were worn and made, and the significance of the designs seen in the pieces.

Trailer for Miao Masters of Silver

Context and Content

Despite the Miao (or Hmong) living throughout the Golden Triangle and much of southern China, most of the jewelry made by the group’s silversmiths hails from the Guizhou Province of China. Historically this is of interest because the region never produced silver. The origin of the Miao is hotly debated, with their own mythology indicating that they originally banded together along the Yellow River in northern China sometime before the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE); there is strong evidence both for and against that having happened. Whatever the case may be, over the course of the past 2000 years the name Miao has come to refer to a group of almost nine and a half million people from at least one hundred sixty subgroups. It was due to trade with the Han Chinese rather than mining that Miao groups first gained access to silver ingots and—again, prior to written history—began to melt them down to create the brilliant silverwork that they are known for today. As the Miao population has continued to increase, so too has demand, forcing silversmiths to come up with more and more creative solutions to keep prices low. Now most Miao “silver” is a composite made from copper and nickel. The Bowers Museum’s Miao silver has been tested and found to mostly be 70-99%, indicating not only its quality but that it was at least made earlier in the 20th century.

A Miao festival in the Guizhou Province. 

Dressing the Occasion

Silver serves many purposes among Miao communities including operating as a symbolic bulwark against evil spirits functioning as a woman’s wealth, however, its primary purpose of festival adornment is well evidenced by the great deal of work that goes into the silverwork’s intricate designs. A given year tends to include at least three major festivals observed by almost all Miao subgroups: New Year, which takes place around October rather than around Chinese New Year; the Sisters’ Meal Festival, which involves a courtship ritual of women giving potential suitors colored rice balls; and the Lusheng Festival, which revolves mostly around the playing of the reed flute or lusheng. Women don full outfits of silver at all three, as well as weddings and other less regular gatherings. What might be only slightly more impressive than the quality of individual silver pieces is the amount that individual women can wear. A large crown and larger horned headdress, breastplate, four pairs of earrings, armfuls of cuffs and bracelets, and twelve necklaces might weigh upwards of thirty pounds.

Pendant with Dragon and Floral Designs, 20th Century
Dong or Miao culture; Guizhou Province, China
Silver; 5 × 5 5/8 in.
Anonymous Gift

Passed Down

The Miao people did not have a written language until recently, so textiles and jewelry became repositories for the accumulated myths and histories of the people. Just like how the motifs used by women in textiles are passed down from mother to daughter, the variety of techniques involved in Miao silversmithing—casting, smelting, repoussé (a reverse hammering technique), forging, engraving, knitting, coiling, cutting, and other methods—as well as many of the same motifs as are seen in embroidery are passed down from father to son. The geometries in silver can reference beauty, unity, fortune, and pride, or even ancient Chinese symbols like that of the never-ending cycle of life. Animals appear especially regularly in Miao silver. Fish and butterflies are both representative of fertility, the latter of which is also the creator of all living beings in Miao mythology. Humans are often portrayed in groups, linked by outstretched arms in celebration or as figures on horseback to honor their ancestors who once lived as herders in the north before migrating south. Other pieces such as the horned headdress are worn in homage to famous Miao warriors. It has even been suggested that the origin for the entirety of a woman’s festival costume was inspired by ancient Miao armor.

Necklace with Hanging Ornaments, date unknown
Miao culture; Guizhou Province, China
Silver; 21 × 18 × 3/4 in.
Gift of Anne and Long Shung Shih

To be fully experienced, the silver must be seen up close, where the complicated designs can be fully enjoyed. Take a trip down to the Bowers Museum this Saturday or in the weeks to see it in all its glory!

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. References are available on request. Information subject to change upon further research.

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