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Mountain Patterns: Survival of Nuosu Culture in China


STEVE HARRELL: Curator of Asian ethnology at the Burke Museum and a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington.
BAMO QUBUMO: Associate professor at the Institute of Ethnic Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing.
MA ERZI: Associate director of the Liangshan Institute of Ethnic Studies, Xichang, Sichuan.

Burke Museum Exhibit:

Thur., Mar. 2, to Mon., Sept. 4, 2000; 10:00am to 5:00pm daily, except Thursdays to 8:00pm; Burke Museum.

Experience the dramatic traditional arts of the Nuosu people. This stunning display is the first major North American exhibit that spotlights the cultural revival of this fascinating but little-known culture from the remote mountains of southwestern China. See over 200 striking artifacts, including intricately patterned clothing, elaborate silver jewelry, armor, colorfully lacquered wooden bowls and serving dishes, and unique musical instruments and religious images.

The rugged homeland of the Nuosu people lies tucked against the Tibetan highlands in the remote mountains of Liangshan in southwestern China. The physical isolation of their mountainous region allowed the Nuosu culture to develop for almost two thousand years with little influence from other cultures. Nuosu arts and religion were almost crushed during the Communist repression of the 1960s and 70s, but with recent political reforms, there has been a resurgence of Nuosu ethnic identity and culture. Distinctive traditional arts have not only experienced a dramatic revival, but innovations have been incorporated into designs and forms.

Admire the elaborate needlework and handmade cloth typical of Nuosu handiwork. Garments are ablaze with exquisite needlework and flashing silver jewelry; the width of a man's pants indicates the region in which he lives; and elaborately embroidered children's hats fend off ghosts. Learn how to "read an outfit" to deduce what clothing reveals about its wearer's home region, age, gender, coming-of-age and parenthood status, and social caste.

Clans specialize in the creation of lacquered items adorned with elaborate red, yellow and black designs. Red represents bravery, yellow symbolizes brightness and beauty, and black denotes dignity. Some clans specialize in wooden serving dishes, while others craft items made of water-buffalo hide.

See dozens of colorful examples of lacquerware, from hand-turned bowls to an ornamental yak skull to a rare suit of armor composed of 352 pieces of water-buffalo hide, lashed together with rawhide laces.

Renowned for their mastery of silversmithing, some Nuosu smiths come from families where their craft has been practiced by as many as nine generations of ancestors. View an entire case of beautiful Nuosu jewelry, made of heavily worked silver. Don't miss the conical priest's hat embellished with ornate silver plates, created by a 72-yer-old silversmith.

Music and song are integral to Nuosu life, and most people sing or play at least one native instrument. The music of flutes, lutes, clarinets, and mouth-harps made of pounded copper from spent shell casings is a part of daily life. Hear recordings of Nuosu music, and see examples of handmade instruments.

The activities of supernatural beings (ghosts and ancestors) permeate the religion of the Nuosu. See images of Nuosu heroes and ghosts, ritual texts written in native script, and quivers and spirit fans. Learn about the bimo, highly respected Nuosu priests who perform rituals to expel ghosts and comfort the souls of the dead. Once persecuted as "superstitious practitioners" during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the bimo have been reclassified as "ethnic intellectuals."

The Mountain Patterns exhibit is the result of collaboration between an American anthropologist and two visiting Nuosu scholars from China. In conjunction with the exhibit, the curators have written the book "Mountain Patterns", published by the University of Washington Press. The curators will also give lectures for the public on the Nuosu culture.

Support for Mountain Patterns was provided by:

The Blakemore Foundation
Asian Cultural Council
COSCO North America, Inc.
The University of Washington China Studies Program
Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities
Jackson School East Asia Resource Center
The Burke Museum Erna Gunther Fund.

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