Why Study Everyday Basketry in China’s Southwest?

by Lijun Zhang and Jason Baird Jackson

In Shidong, a town in Guizhou, Mrs. Long spends her days reaching into the bamboo sewing basket that holds the threads, needles, and scissors that are essential to her work as a skilled Miao embroidery artist. Each April, Mr. Wu walks to the cherry grove in Gaodang, a Bouyei village, also in Guizhou, to gather delicious fruit that he collects and carries home in a bamboo gathering basket. On the streets of Dali in Yunnan, restaurant workers prepare to feed the day’s tourists and locals by squatting on the sidewalk in front of their establishments and rinsing rice and vegetables piled high in basketry scoops. No far away is the village of Shuanglang, a rural community on Erhai Lake that is now crowded with urban tourists. Here a craftsman sits in his open air shop completing work on a bamboo baby cradle. Made to protect and comfort a newborn in the basket maker’s own Bai community, a group of Americans happen by and the basket is purchased and whisked off to the United States to serve as an unusual gift for the expecting parents of a newborn on the other side of the world. There is no harm in it, as bamboo with which to make another one sits nearby at the ready. Across the road from the basket maker, new building projects to accommodate the village’s many visitors necessitate the removal of debris. With the region’s ubiquitous pack baskets on their backs, workers haul off piles of broken wood and masonry. Outside Lihu town in Guangxi, Mrs. He looks on as two small pigs are unloaded from the back of a motorbike. The centerpiece for a festive meal that she is preparing for a group of visiting officials, the pigs have been delivered to her kitchen door tightly contained in a pair of loosely woven bamboo pig baskets. Any traveler to the rural parts of China’s Southwest will be greeted with countless basketry scenes like these.

A basket seller carts his wares in Guandong town, a predominantly
Dong community in Guizhou Province. December 9, 2014.

It is a truism that China is changing rapidly. China’s contemporary transformations offer up compelling — sometimes surprising — stories of new technologies, new occupations, and new ways of living. These changes have also provoked new kinds of interest in the continuities that connect the past and present in Chinese culture as well as motivate new kinds of engagements with older ways of life that, in some instances, seem to be slipping into the past. The nation’s intense engagement with what is known internationally as “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH) is in part a reaction to the vast scale of the social and economic changes now unfolding in China. In China, urban tourists in great numbers spend vacations visiting remote rural villages so as to regain what they feel is a sense of how their ancestors of the not-so-distant past lived and worked. At the same time, large national investments have been made in the creation of thousands of new museums documenting and interpreting the nation’s cultural heritage. On a scale greater than in any other nation, provincial and national honors are bestowed upon skilled Chinese practitioners of venerable arts and performance traditions. Concurrently, China has actively secured international recognition from UNESCO for valued heritage sites and distinctive cultural practices. With such recognition, these heritage sites often become important tourist destinations while the globally validated cultural forms now marked as ICH attract new admirers and sometimes take on new economic value. These activities are all part of a dramatic national engagement with cultural heritage.

Women hold basketry-wrapped wine jugs for use in a welcoming ceremony in Gaodang, a Bouyi village in Guizhou Province. April 15, 2015.

As folklorists and ethnologists, our work is inspired by the same feelings of interest, inspiration, appreciation, and concern about loss that underpin these national heritage endeavors, but as scholars we also seek to understand the deeper motivations that underpin heritage phenomena around the world and the unanticipated effects that heritage efforts have in the lives of the people that they encompass. We are, for instance, interested in what kinds of activities — from opera to embroidery — are recast as heritage and which ones are not. Not every old food or occupation, building or dance style is transformed in this way. Some are, but others are ignored as they slip into the past without attempts at celebration, preservation, or revival. Not just allowed to slip away — some past practices can be officially suppressed or informally repudiated as backward or no longer sensible. Heritage is made not found. Together with a group of Chinese and American colleagues, we have been studying a Chinese craft that may or may not come to be seen as a significant expression of Chinese heritage in the ways that we have been describing. That uncertainty gives it special interest now, but even if it does not become widely seen as heritage, its fundamental importance to the lives of so many, for so long, also motivates our interest in it. In other words, we study everyday basketry in Southwest China because it has for so long played such a key role in the daily lives of vast numbers of people but we also see it as an interesting phenomenon relative to the making or not-making of heritage.

Fish trap baskets hung for storage in a household of Basha, a Miao village in Guizhou Province. December 9, 2014.

In urban China, work baskets made by hand in non-factory settings have become rare but in rural parts of Southwest China, such baskets made of bamboo remain in widespread use. A household might possess sixty or more different basket forms or types. While many have multiple uses, some may each be owned and used for a different purpose — from catching small fish to holding a weaver’s shuttle; from hauling vegetables back from the garden to pressing exquisite pleats into a stunningly beautiful skirt. We have been fortunate to have time and opportunity to meet skilled basket makers busy at their work. We have also begun talking with basket merchants who understand changes in what buyers want and what makers are willing and able to make. Finally, we have spent time conversing with farmers, homemakers, and other workers who use work baskets in countless daily labors. From all of these, we have also purchased baskets for a growing museum collection at Indiana University’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures. These have been included in an exhibition called Putting Baskets to Work in Southwest China. That exhibition was most recently on display at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History on the campus of the University of Oklahoma in the United States. As our research continues, we hope to continue expanding and enriching the exhibition and sharing it with new audiences.

Lijun Zhang (R) with Su Chengchang (L) in his basket shop in Tongle, a Dong town in Guangxi. July 19, 2018.

From Mr. Li, a basket maker in northern Guangxi we learned how an elaborate kind of basket is made for carrying gifts of sticky rice between the households of a groom and a bride. Although Mr. Li sells small numbers of his baskets at the local market in Lihu town center, many kinds of work baskets bought and used in his community are now imported from still more rural communities in Guizhou rather than being made locally. But the fancy basket that Mr. Li has mastered remains a locally made necessity because it figures importantly in the wedding and funeral ceremonies of his Baiku Yao people. Mr. Li informed us that he cannot keep up with the demand in his local community.

The making of a basket for sticky rice in Huaili village in Guangxi. December 14, 2017.

In the town of Tongle, also in Guangxi, festival days attract buyers and sellers of a wide range of household goods and farming equipment, including baskets. Throughout the Southwest, farmers carry their billhooks (a curved cutting tool carried and used with one hand) in basketry sheaths worn at the waist. Long made of bamboo, buyers during Tongle’s Bull Festival in 2016 could also choose bill hook baskets that were woven instead from the sturdy plastic packing strap material used to close and secure boxes and crates for shipping. As elsewhere in the world, such industrial materials are finding their way into age-old hand crafts reflecting a dynamic mixture of the old and the new.

Carrying pack baskets loaded with purchases, a group of women walk through the shopping district of Dali in Yunnan Province. December 12, 2013

Mass produced plastic containers are ubiquitous in our own lives, having taken the place of baskets for tasks such as carrying laundry or washing vegetables. From a different Mr. Li, a basket merchant in the town of Lihu in Guangxi, we learned that many of his buyers still prefer handmade bamboo baskets. They come to him not out of a vague loyalty to the old way but because, while more expensive, his baskets last longer than the plastic imitations that can be found elsewhere in the Lihu market. In Southwest China, work baskets are often put to hard use outdoors in the sun. Under such conditions, plastic quickly becomes brittle and breaks while bamboo is more durable. Yet, as in urban settings in China and the United States, plastic goods grow ever more common in rural Southwest China. Will they largely replace bamboo basketry over time? Because we admire these baskets and the people whom we have met who make, sell, and like using them, we hope not but this question will only be answered with the passage of time and the choices that the region’s people will make.

Plastic copies of bamboo baskets for sale in Lihu town in Guangxi. December 16, 2017.

Among Native American people in the United States, as in Japan, work basket forms have already been transformed into heritage objects. Native American artisans make baskets that look like the work baskets of their ancestors, but no one today would think to use them for hard, dirty farm work or for everyday household purposes. They are uncommon, expensive, and highly valued for the cultural traditions and identities that they symbolize. They are works of heritage — worthy of preservation in museums and in the work of artists concerned with themes of cultural continuity and identity. In Japan, work baskets have also been transformed but there, the techniques and materials of bamboo basketry have been freed from service to manual labor and the forms that supported it. Bamboo basketry there has instead become an elaborate sculptural art prized by international collectors and celebrated as a continuation, but also an evolution, of an old tradition that is no longer centered on elegant tools for trapping eels or filtering soy sauce. Not all peoples have venerated their old baskets as they pass out of daily use. Some have simply moved on, leaving basketry behind. The question is untested in rural Southwest China, where work baskets remain central to everyday life, where basket makers earn very humble wages, and where national heritage initiatives have not given them the same kind of attention that has been bestowed on the beautiful embroidery, lively and nostalgic farmer’s paintings, colorful minority clothing traditions, and diverse epic song traditions that are at the heart of the region’s heritage repertoire. In common with nearly all who practice his craft in Southwest China, we were the first people to document Mr. Li’s basketry work when we visited him last December. For most scholars as for most people still living and working with such baskets, they retain a taken for granted quality. As scholars, we are happy to work in a discipline that takes special pleasure in investigating the taken for granted alongside that which is celebrated.

A harvesting basket filled with cherries in Gaodang, a Bouyi village in Guizhou. Leaves cover the cherries to keep them cool in the sun. April 15, 2015.

Lijun Zhang is a Research Associate of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University. She previously served as Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi.

Jason Baird Jackson is Director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures and a Professor of Folklore and Anthropology at Indiana University. Prior to joining the faculty of Indiana University, he was Assistant Curator of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

A basket maker in Shuanglang, a Bai village in Yunnan, completes work on a basketry cradle. December 11, 2013.
Dong women shop in Su Chengchang‘s basket shop in Tongle town in Guangxi. Boot-shaped bill hook carrying baskets of bamboo and of yellow plastic strapping material are displayed at the right. May 13, 2016.
Li Guozhong (L) confers with a potential customer in his basketry stall in the Lihu town market in Guangxi. December 16, 2017.

Our work in Southwest China has been supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi, Indiana University, and other supporters of the American Folklore Society’s ongoing collaborations with the China Folklore Society. We express particular appreciation to our project partners at the Yunnan Nationalities Museum, Guizhou Nationalities Museum, the Nandan Baiku Yao Ecomuseum, the Sanjiang Dong Ecomuseum, the Museum of International Folk Art, and the Michigan State University Museum.

Jason Baird Jackson

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Director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures and Professor of Folklore and Anthropology at Indiana University