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Miao people’s silver jewelry: wearable cultural heritage

A documentary entitled “Walk into Miao Village in Guizhou” became a hot topic on French social media immediately after it premiered in April, racking up more than 5 million views. The documentary tells stories about Miao life in Southwest China. French audiences found the Miao girls impressive in that “they can dance once they learn how to walk, and they can sing once they know how to speak.” Their silver was also eye-catching.

Why do Miao women have such a passion for silver jewelry? It is said that in ancient times the Miao people lived around the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the Yellow River basin. Long periods of war forced them to frequently relocate until they arrived in Southwest China where they live today. During the migrations, they exchanged their property for silver and crafted it into various kinds of jewelry and ornaments.

Miao people also believe silver jewelry wards off evil spirits and can purge of the body of toxins. While the Miao people now live settled lives, silver remains indispensable. During important occasions like weddings and festivals, they wear silver ornaments from head to toe, like silver headdresses, chains, rings and bracelets. The whole outfit can weigh between 3kg and 4km, with the heaviest reaching 10kg to 15kg.

Butterflies and maples, both seen as holy in their culture, are the most common patterns in Miao silver jewelry. Lacking their own written language, embroidery and silversmithing play a key role in passing down Miao history and culture.

Silversmithing is passed down generation to generation, with craftsmen developing incredible skills without the aid of modern production methods. Some filamentary silver is even thinner than a human hair

Miao silvermaking was inscribed in China’s National Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection List in 2006, and was listed as one of the country’s 30 most endangered heritage items.

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