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Book Review: Mountain Patterns: The Survival of Nuosu Cultur
Publication time:2010-08-10  | Author:Mark Bender

Mountain Patterns: The Survival of Nuosu Culture in China. By Stevan Harrell, Bamo Qubumo, and Ma Erzi. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000. Pp. 64, 115 color and black-and-white photographs).


Mountain Patterns is the companion text to an extensive exhibit by the same name on Nuosu culture held recently at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, Seattle. The Nuosu are one of the many diverse subgroups of the Yi, an ethnic minority nationality numbering in the millions and living mostly in the uplands of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou provinces in southwest China. The center of Nuosu culture is in the Cool Mountains of Sichuan province, where their kingdom remained independent for hundreds of years. The Mountain Patterns exhibit is the first of its kind on Nuosu culture held outside of China.

The Mountain Patterns volume is a wonderful introduction to the visual and plastic arts that comprise the material culture of the Nuosu, covering a comprehensive range of social situations. The supporting text is accurate, relevant, and clearly presented, the result of an ideal team of collaborators. Stevan Harrell, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable student of Nuosu culture and professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle, grounds the work with an introduction situating the Nuosu culture within complex historic and ethnic frames. He stresses the revival of ethnic awareness since the decades of the repressive Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the subsequent flourishing of traditional material culture within the new complexities of an advancing consumer culture brought about by the Chinese modernization project. As project coordinator, he also translated the other chapters in the volume and wrote a chapter on the intriguing red, black, and yellow lacquer ware eating utensils, now an important part of the local and national tourist trade. Ma Erzi, the associate director of the Liangshan Nationalities Research Institute in Xichang, Sichuan, authored an informative chapter on the sacred books and implements of the bimo, the ritual specialists of the Nuosu (and other Yi groups). He begins his essay with a quote summarizing the traditional place of the bimo in Yi society: "If a ruler knows a thousand things, and a minister a hundred, then the things a bimo knows are innumerable" (p. 51). The section is illustrated with rare and valuable photos of these specialists and their ritual texts, recited aloud in a variety of contexts, as well as ritual instruments such as "spirit quivers," "spirit fans," and ritual hats and bells.

Bamo Qubumo, an associate professor of ethnic minority folklore in the Institute for Minority Literature of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, wrote the bulk of the articles in Mountain Patterns. Her lovingly crafted chapters cover architecture, clothing and textiles, silversmithing and jewelry, musical instruments, and ghost boards and spirit pictures, the latter supplementing Ma"s chapter on ritual items used by bimo. Like the other chapters, these articles are supplemented with clear, close-up photos of items, often being used in context. Process-minded folklorists will appreciate the consistently exacting detail of the descriptions. Certain parts are so thickly described that they could act as primers for replication or guides to insider aesthetic appreciation. An example from the chapter "Silversmithing and Jewelry" is typical: The smith first melts some silver and casts it in the shape of a strip twelve to fifteen centimeters long, which is pounded to the thickness of two sheets of paper. He then puts it on the lap-held pitch board and with a hollow, broad-pointed chisel breaks off little pieces, the rounder and more even the better. He puts the silver disks in a round, cast-iron dapping die and uses a wooden dapping punch, thick as a chopstick and ten centimeters long, to pound them into a concave shape, and then returns them to the mat and makes a little hole in each one with an iron punch, so that they can be sewn onto the collar. To make the silver studs even prettier, he can return them to the copper crucible and heat it, rinse the suds in alum water, and rub them with a cloth to make them shiny and bright. [p. 37]

The chapter entitled "Clothing and Textiles" includes an in-depth introduction to traditional and recent materials, the techniques of weaving, felting, and dyeing, and a key to the symbolic patterns used in the designs. The Nuosu have long been famous for their capes, some made of felt (jieshy) and others of homespun wool. Besides shielding their wearers from cold and rain, the capes offer protection when nights are spent in the open, or can serve as grain bags, and are sometimes used to carry infants. Special wooden presses are used to set pleats in the felt capes.

Bamo Qubumo also supplies careful detail on uses of traditional styles of dress throughout the life process, whether by gender, age group, region, or caste. These topics include men"s and women"s hair and headdress styles, the big, medium, and small trouser leg styles for men, and "fern"-patterned children"s hats. Several photos illustrate variations of the emblematic cloth "horn" on the men"s turbans and the long, particolored women"s skirts with flounces along the edges. In most cases, enough photos are provided to gain some sense of the range of style and variation of the clothing and other items.

Harrell"s slim volume is a finely contextualized panorama of traditional Nuosu material culture, obviously of great value in connection with the museum exhibit. The illustrations are comprehensive enough that the text can stand on its own as a learning tool and will be a useful addition to any East Asian folklore course that recognizes the importance of material culture. At the introductory level, it complements texts such as Gail Rossi"s The Dong People of Southwest China: A Hidden Civilization (Hagley and Hoyle, 1990, with photography by Paul Lau), which portrays a very different ethnic group from southwest China in a similar pictorial format. The work will also enhance the value of earlier pictorial albums such as The Costumes and Adornments of Chinese Yi Nationality Picture Album (Beijing Arts and Crafts Publishing House, 1990), a volume rich in images but with relatively little description to support them. Length, accessibility of content, wise use of illustrations, and an inviting cover with a skirt pattern from the Leibo district, combine to make Mountain Patterns a well-produced text that is stronger for its international, group authorship.

Mark Bender

Ohio State University

Columbus, Ohio

Journal of American Folklore 114 (2001), 90-91

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