In Shidong, a town in Guizhou Province in southwestern China, Ms. Long, an ethnic Miao, spends her days reaching in and out of the bamboo sewing basket that holds the threads, needles, and scissors that are essential to her work as a skilled embroiderer. Each April, Mr. Wu walks to the cherry grove in Gaodang, a Bouyei village, also in Guizhou, to collect delicious fruit, which he carries home in a bamboo gathering basket.
On the streets of Dali in Yunnan Province, restaurant workers prepare to feed not only the locals but also the many tourists who visit this picturesque place. While squatting on the sidewalk in front of their establishments, they rinse rice and vegetables piled high in scoop-shaped baskets. Not far away is the village of Shuanglang, a rural community on Erhai Lake that is now crowded with big-city tourists. Here a craftsman sits in his open-air shop completing work on a bamboo baby cradle. Made to protect and comfort a newborn in the basket maker’s own Bai community, the cradle is purchased by a group of Americans who will whisk it off to the United States to serve as an unusual gift for a newborn on the other side of the world. There is no harm in it, as bamboo with which to make another sits nearby at the ready. Across the road from the basket maker, new building projects to accommodate the village’s many visitors necessitate the removal of piles of broken wood and masonry. With the region’s ubiquitous pack baskets on their backs, workers haul off piles of debris.
Outside Lihu town in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Ms. He looks on as two small pigs are unloaded from the back of a motorbike. The centerpiece for a festive meal that she is preparing for a group of visiting officials, the pigs have been delivered to her kitchen door snug in a pair of loosely woven bamboo pig baskets.
Any traveler to the rural parts of China’s Southwest will be greeted with countless basketry scenes like these from Guizhou, Yunnan, and Guangxi.
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It is a truism that China is changing rapidly. China’s contemporary transformations offer up compelling — sometimes surprising — stories of new technologies, new occupations, and new ways of living. These changes have also provoked new kinds of interest in the continuities that connect the past and present in Chinese culture, as well as motivate new kinds of engagements with older ways of life that, in some instances, seem to be slipping into the past. The nation’s intense engagement with what is known internationally as intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is in part a reaction to the vast scale of the social and economic changes now unfolding.
In China, urban tourists in great numbers spend vacations visiting remote rural villages to regain what they feel is a sense of how their ancestors of the not-so-distant past lived and worked. At the same time, large national investments have been made to create thousands of new museums documenting and interpreting the nation’s cultural heritage. On a scale greater than in any other nation, provincial and national honors are bestowed upon skilled Chinese practitioners of venerable arts and performance traditions.
Concurrently, China has actively secured international recognition from UNESCO for valued heritage sites and distinctive cultural practices. With such recognition, these heritage sites often become important tourist destinations while the globally validated cultural forms now marked as ICH attract new admirers and sometimes take on new economic value. These activities are all part of a dramatic national engagement with cultural heritage.
In urban China, work baskets made by hand in non-factory settings have become rare, but in rural parts of Southwest China, such baskets made of bamboo remain in widespread use. A household might possess sixty or more different basket forms or types. While many have multiple uses, some may be owned and used for a specific purpose: catching small fish, holding a weaver’s shuttle, hauling vegetables back from the garden, or pressing exquisite pleats into a stunningly beautiful skirt.
From Mr. Li, a basket maker in northern Guangxi, we learned how an elaborate kind of basket is made for carrying gifts of sticky rice between the households of a groom and a bride. Although Mr. Li sells a few at the local market in the Lihu town center, many work baskets bought and used in his community are now imported from still more rural communities in Guizhou. But the fancy basket that Mr. Li has mastered remains a locally made necessity because it figures importantly in the wedding and funeral ceremonies of his Baiku Yao people. Mr. Li informed us that he cannot keep up with the demand in his community.
In the town of Tongle, also in Guangxi, festival days attract buyers and sellers of a wide range of household goods and farming equipment, including baskets. Throughout the Southwest, farmers carry their billhooks (a curved cutting tool carried and used with one hand) in basketry sheaths worn at the waist. At Tongle’s Bull Festival in 2016, buyers could choose billhook baskets woven from the traditional bamboo or the sturdy plastic straps used to secure boxes and crates for shipping. As elsewhere in the world, such industrial materials are finding their way into age-old hand crafts, reflecting a dynamic mixture of the old and the new.
Mass-produced plastic containers are ubiquitous in our own lives, having taken the place of baskets for tasks such as carrying laundry or washing vegetables. From a different Mr. Li, a basket merchant in the town of Lihu in Guangxi, we learned that many of his buyers still prefer handmade bamboo baskets. They come to him not out of a vague loyalty to the old way but because, while more expensive, his baskets last longer than the plastic imitations that can be found elsewhere in the Lihu market. In Southwest China, work baskets are often put to hard use outdoors in the sun. Under such conditions, plastic quickly becomes brittle and breaks, while bamboo is more durable. Yet, as in urban settings in China and the United States, plastic goods grow ever more common in rural Southwest China. Will they largely replace bamboo basketry over time?
This question is untested in rural Southwest China, where work baskets remain central to everyday life, where basket makers earn very humble wages, and where national heritage initiatives have not given them the same kind of attention that has been bestowed on the beautiful embroidery, lively and nostalgic farmers’ paintings, colorful minority clothing, and diverse epic song traditions that are at the heart of the region’s heritage repertoire.
However, among Native American people in the United States and in Japan, work basket forms have already been transformed into heritage objects. Native American artisans make baskets that look like the work baskets of their ancestors, but no one today would think to use them for hard, dirty farm work or for everyday household purposes. They are uncommon, expensive, and highly valued for the cultural traditions and identities that they signify. They are works of heritage — worthy of preservation in museums and in the work of artists concerned with themes of cultural continuity and identity.
In Japan, the techniques and materials of bamboo basketry have been freed from service to manual labor and the forms that supported it: elegant tools for trapping eels or filtering soy sauce. Bamboo basketry has instead become an elaborate sculptural art, prized by international collectors and celebrated as a continuation, but also an evolution, of an old tradition. Not all peoples have venerated their old baskets as they pass out of daily use. Some have simply moved on, leaving basketry behind.
We were the first people to document Mr. Li’s basketry work when we visited him in December 2017. Nearly all who practice his craft in Southwest China have never been documented. For most Chinese scholars, as for most people still living and working with such baskets, work basketry is taken for granted. But as students of an American approach to folklife studies, we take special pleasure in investigating that which has been taken for granted alongside that which is celebrated.
As part of this research, we have purchased baskets for a growing museum collection at Indiana University’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures. These have been included in an exhibition called Putting Baskets to Work in Southwest China. That exhibition was most recently on display at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History on the University of Oklahoma campus. As our research continues, we hope to continue expanding and enriching the exhibition and sharing it with new audiences.
Lijun Zhang is a research associate of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University. She previously served as curator of folklife and cultural heritage at the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi.
Jason Baird Jackson is director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures and a professor of folklore and anthropology at Indiana University. Previously, he was assistant curator of ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.