Miao Silversmiths Promote Highly-respected Art

Well known for its exquisite technological and artistic design, Taijiang silver jewelry represents the unique aesthetic taste of the Miao people in the Taijiang Miao autonomous region of Kaili city, Guizhou Province. Miao women -- dressed in plain dyed clothes – are adorned in silver: Silver combs horns, caps, flowers, hair clasps, hair picks, earrings, necklaces. The weight of a complete set of ornamental clothing for a Miao woman can weigh over 10-20 kg (some 25 pounds), rare among any nationality anywhere in the world.

The silver that Miao women carry through jewelry and ornaments also plays an important role in their lives as a symbol of wealth.

Behind these beautiful and unique ornaments, Miao silversmiths have been passing their skills on from generation to generation in engraving, carving, hammering and twining into patterns that are hollow or solid and shapes that are round or hexagonal.

For these silversmiths, nothing can make them happier than creating a set of fine silver ornaments. Wu Tongju -- one of the best silversmiths in Taijiang county who is known throughout the county for his delicate craftwork -- began to follow his father in making silver ornaments when he was only 15 years old. Living a simple life and supporting himself by farming, Wu Tongju has devoted his life to making silver ornaments. He has added many new patterns into the traditional designs.

Currently, the major task for Wu Dongju is to make four sets of splendid garments for his four daughters. He recently completed the first for his oldest daughter, Wu Guomei, whose splendid silver-decorated dress cost more than 30 thousand yuan to make, or the whole family’s savings for over two years. It took her father three months to make the dress which weighs more than 20 kg.

Wu Guomei believes she can be an ideal model for her father’s work and hopes that this beautiful and gorgeous clothing can help her catch attention and praise from many suitors. As for Wu Dongju, the happiest moment in his life was to see his daughter wear the clothing in which he wove his love and hope. Wu Tongju strongly believe that with time and the accumulation of his family’s savings, his other daughters’ outfits will be even more delicate and charming.

Although the individual techniques in making silver ornaments may seem comparatively easy to manage – like burning, blending, hammering, engraving, cutting, and twining -- each masterpiece testifies to each silversmith’s great persistence and patience. The results justify the painstaking efforts the silversmith puts into his work. Among about 60 families in Tanglong town, more than 20 families are making a living by doing silver ornaments, however, no one is able to compete Wutongju, who is without question the expert in this field.

Another outstanding silversmith, Wu Tonglun, shares something in common with Wu Tongju. When Wu Tonglun was orphaned when he was only five years old. However, he never gave up his hope of promoting his family’s 200-year tradition of making silver ornaments. Despite many obstacles and difficulties, Wu Tonglun has both kept and furthered his family tradition. With several decades’ experience in making silver ornaments, Wu Tonglun has made over fifty types of silver ornaments in the forms of dragons, phoenix, fish, birds and other figures. Many of his works have won awards in Guizhou for their unique and exquisite design and excellent technique. As a well-seasoned silversmith, Wu Tonglun took many of examples of his work to show in an exhibition held in Beijing, in which he showcased this ancient but charming skill of making silver ornaments.

Another thing that gives Wu Tonglun much satisfaction is that his 16-year-old son, Wu Guoyin, also inherited his skill in making silver ornaments. Young as Wu Guolun is, he is very inquisitive about making silver ornaments. Still only a middle-school student, he is confident that one day he will surpass his father in this technique. And as a father, Wu Tonglun is more than happy to see his son falling in love with this long-cherished family tradition.

At the gate of Wu’s home, shining and glittering silver ornaments display the Wu family’s continuing dedication to the family’s 200-years’ tradition in promoting this highly respected art.

(www.gog.com.cn November 30, 2001 by Duan Lina & Wang Xiaomei, translated by Feng Shu for china.org.cn December 10, 2001)