Miao Belt Weaving
Ju xiang
Hunan
Heritage
Fabric Making

Ingenious Miao girls not only know how to embroider, but also know weaving and spinning as well, and they can weave all kinds of patterns into their belts. Legend has it that in ancient times, people living in the mountains of the Miao often confronted poisonous snakes. However one beautiful and intelligent girl happened to see a snake encounter another, which quickly slithered away. So the girl wove a colourful snake pattern into a narrow belt, and would wear it around her waist. Whenever she met a snake she would just take the belt off and wave it and the snake, thinking it had met another, would quickly depart. A lot of people started to use this approach and injuries and bites declined. Since then, the making of Miao belts woven with patterns has been passed down from generation to generation and the patterns have become more varied, while the belts themselves have ceased to be just for scaring snakes and have tended to be multi-purpose, for example as a token of affection to a lover. When a boy gets this gift from a girl he will be especially happy and will wear it close to his skin, still exposing a piece of the pattern so that people will know he has a woman who has shown her love for him.

The patterned weavings are generally not that wide, ranging from about 2 cm, up to 4 or 5 cm. However there are also 10-15 cm or even 30 cm widths, usually in cotton or silk and decorated with auspicious and creative designs.

Juxiang is now living in Xiangxi Huayuan, a small village where everyone knows of her prowess at weaving. When she was only seven years old she was forced by the difficulties of life to learn these skills in order to help pay for the maintenance of her family, and she and her mother would weave from dawn to dusk. To fetch a good price for the work her mother taught her well while she was young and later she learned and studied by herself. Perhaps surprisingly, as she became older she grew passionate about her weaving and to love the craft. In the 1980's she developed a new design of Miao woven belt and in the 90's she created a Dragon and Phoenix Miao tie. She attended the World Fair in Yugoslavia where she won the only gold medal for the Chinese exhibition group and this product was also given to the UN's Samaranch and his wife as a state gift.

Today she is over sixty, but her face is still pink and her back strong and straight. When we called to contact her she was 3 or 4 kilometers away at a town market, but she promised to be home in quarter of an hour.  Sure enough after twenty minutes she arrived with a smile, having taken a short cut down the rugged slopes, still slippery after snow. She playfully chatted like an excited child as she searched for her ribbons. Pulling open boxes and drawers she rummaged for her favourite pieces, and as she found each one she would describe the story behind it.  One in particular was a sampler of phoenixes, where she tried many different designs, some flying, some combing their feathers, until she finally hit upon the one she loved. She commented that "many of the young people in the village are out of work and have left, so listening to the young love song duets has become a thing of the past. We older ladies still like to work with the children outside, playing mahjong together to keep our minds active, but as soon as I touch the copper or bone needles, it is like a meteorite flying - my obsession to get back to my loom is unstoppable. So I am happy with what life offers me. You see my machine is simple and light, like a double X shape and when I put my leg through the loom to make it stable then I just begin to weave.  It works equally well inside or outside the house, and you know, when I was young I could actually weave one meter in a day."

"Over the years I have never been able to let go of this weaving passion of mine and still occasionally I will go to other villages to train Miao women and help them to increase their income. I'm getting older though, and I just hope that this colorful, gorgeous, magnificent belt weaving craft will bloom forever in the garden of Miao art work."

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