Discovering Miao Embroidery with Zeng Li

“I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,” says Wang Jun, wanting to broaden our understanding of Miao textiles. I was in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, with Karen Brock and Joe Coca, working on Every Thread a Story: Traditional Chinese Artisans of Guizhou Province. So Jun took us straightaway to meet with his friend Zeng Li: a bright, elegant woman who would have looked at home in a business district in Beijing (where she actually works). But here in Guiyang, her focus is on the private museum she has established to conserve her father’s extensive collection of Miao textiles and photographs, dating back more than 50 years.

Zeng Li, author of The Secret Language of Miao Embroidery.

We wander through the display cases of splendid old textiles, tools, and documents, marveling at the quality of work and the window it gives us into the past. She shares stories of her childhood, accompanying her father out into remote villages, where he was charged with documenting the lives and work of the ethnic minorities before China was opened to the Western world. We admire the books she has published preserving this work. And at some point, she mentions what she’s working on now: the secret language embedded in Miao embroidered symbols. Zeng Li lights up as she describes what she’s been learning.

Miao textiles
An elaborately embroidered “One Hundred Bird” festival costume. Photo by Zeng Li from The Secret Language of Miao Embroidery.

The Miao had no written language for centuries. The history of this dominant ethnic group—their cultural values, their cosmic beliefs, the events that shaped their migrations—was preserved in the symbol-rich embroideries which graced their textiles. Reading these symbols is not a linear exercise, though. As Zeng Li points out, they defy the space-time continuum. She tells of having an almost aha! moment in her quest to understand and to separate meaning from its tangible context.

Miao textiles
Meticulous stitches shape the divine Jiyu bird, a significant symbol in Miao cosmology, and the companion line drawing. From The Secret Language of Miao Embroidery.

Of course we were intrigued. To the point that after an hour or so of discussion, we had proposed publishing a small book focusing on the symbolic Miao textiles of the southeast part of Guizhou Province in which we were working. And she had agreed. It meant accelerating her schedule to accommodate our deadlines, narrowing her focus to a handful of discernible symbols, and describing them in a way that was not inscrutable to our literal western minds.

Zeng Li, me, and a family we met at the Bridge Worshiping festival in Fanpai–before the rice wine! Photo by Wang Jun.

Li is an energetic, get-it-done person. We saw this vividly illustrated when she accompanied us to the traditional Bridge Festival in Fanpai village. Our van stalled out on a steep, muddy, impossibly zig-zagged road. We were all three sheets to the wind from all the rice wine that had been thrust upon us. But Zeng Li was the first to hop out and help push, up to the soles of her high-heeled boots in the slush, laughing at the adventure of it. And we saw these same qualities as she turned in her manuscript, complete with English translation and beautiful line drawings, a mere four months later.

Miao textiles

Her book, The Secret Language of Miao Embroidery, is part of a boxed set with Wang Jun’s Every Thread a Story. The words require a certain suspension of disbelief, but the textiles and the line drawings are inspirational. Texting with her the other day via WeChat, I learned that an exhibit of her textiles scheduled in San Francisco this fall will probably be delayed. “Getting out of the neighborhood now requires dryness of the mouth and taking of the body temperature,” she explains. “Although life and work are affected, the health of the disease is also a blessing in misfortune.” Just think about that.



Discover the symbols of Miao embroidery: Pre-Order Every Thread a Story & The Secret Language of Miao Embroidery today.


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