255th Meeting – Tuesday, December 14th 2004
Present: Allan Adasiak, Louise Ahl, Hans & Saengdow Bänziger, Paul Barber-Riley, Mark Bleadon, Bonnie Brereton, Kay Calavon, Guy Cardinal, Nina Cassils, Lamorna Cheesman, Peter Cuasay, Bill Dovhey, Olivier Evrard, Louis Gabaude, Martine Gauthier, Oliver Hargreave, Reinhard Hohler, Ken Kampe, Jan Kilborn, Martyn King, Hugh Leong, Marjorie Muecke, Bannarak Nakbunlung, Supaporn Nakbunlung, Jeanette Pembroke, Francois Perez, Aileen Roantree, Maria A. Salas, Armin & Anne Schoch, Timmi Tillmann, Lisa Tobin, Celeste Tolibas-Holland, Victoria Vorreiter. An audience of 35.
Background - Patricia Cheesman has done in-depth field research in the Laos PDR and
The full text of the talk:
In-depth research on Lao-Tai textiles in the Lao
An important finding of this author’s research is that Lao-Tai peoples used textiles and clothing to express their desire to belong to certain communities, which pledged allegiance to their chiefs. Clothing styles were outward expressions of allegiance to the chief, who in turn would wear appropriate clothing to show allegiance to his overlords. When people were relocated to different areas under a new chief, they changed their clothing and textiles accordingly. This adaptation was in some cases a gradual process and in others very sudden, and can be studied in both displaced groups and intermarriage. While clothing styles changed, in all or some part, to the style of the new location for various reasons, textiles made for household use generally maintained their original styles despite migrations and deportations. This may have been because they were not publicly seen, whereas clothing was. Discontinuation of home-produced household textiles usually indicates the availability of commercial household goods. The case of the Tai Khang, who fled their homelands in Muang Phuan to Xam Nuea to escape being enslaved by the Siamese in the 18th and 19th centuries, is an exception where both the clothing and household styles of Xam Nuea were adopted, probably due to the suddenness of their move and their desire to avoid detection.
If in the past, the clothing and textiles of communities were indicators of allegiance to certain muang without ethnic restriction, perhaps textiles could create the supposed reality of the extent of an indigenous muang?
At the turn of the
century the French established Indochina and the current political
The 14th century saw the
number of large and politically powerful Lao-Tai muang in what
areas of the Lao P.D.R, northwest
The uniformity of data gathered in each region has enabled this author to chart the textiles of these ancient muang in a fairly logical system, with the conclusion that the people in each tributary muang originally used some, if not all the types of textiles in the style of their governing muang for the basic needs of life and for the embellishing of their cultural beliefs, regardless of ethnicity. It has been possible to identify the artistic style of the textiles and dress codes of several muang and the ethnic groups in each of these muang that follow these codes. It is the politico-geographical muang provenance information that sheds light on existing textiles and alternatively, existing textile styles can be used to map emigrational histories (Naenna, 1998).
are toponyms (names which derive from the topographical features of the
where people live) and relate directly to the muang of origin,
the Tai Nuea from Muang Xam Nuea who were at one time the dominant
that muang. The Tai Daeng from M. Daeng migrated into Muang Xam
bringing with them textile styles from M. Daeng. When the French
Tai Nuea administration in Muang Xam Nuea with Tai Daeng chiefs for
purposes, the textile styles of M. Daeng suddenly became the dominant
Xam Nuea. However, the Xam Nuea textile style cannot be identified as
only to the Tai Nuea or the Tai Daeng, as both these groups display the
style in their textiles, as do those of the Tai Moei and Tai Khang in
region. Instead the classification as Xam Nuea style textiles with
subsequent sub-styles is more accurate and describes an art form
produced in a
geographical location with its own ethnographic histories. The Tai Nuea
moved to the
Muang Xam Nuea was in the path of some of the earliest migrations of Lao-Tai peoples into Laos and Thailand from Vietnam, which began over a thousand years ago (Cam, 1998 p. 20). For this reason, the textiles of Xam Nuea not only hold many proto-types for textiles further south and west which have evolved variously but also display styles that have since been discarded by the Thái (the Vietnamese rendering of the word) in the regions of Vietnam from whence the people of Xam Nuea came. Those areas in Vietnam became the principal muang of Sipsong Tjao Tai, incorporating Muang Xam Nuea as a tributary muang (Chamberlain, 1992 p.20). Most of the original textiles in the Sipsong Tjao Tai style from northwestern Vietnam and southern China have been discontinued but my findings on allegiance and muang factors discussed above based on the homogenous quality of textiles from certain regions, concludes that the peoples of Sipsong Tjao Tai at one time wove and wore textiles that were essentially similar in style and at the same time displayed subtle differences in each of the tributary muang. The method of dress for women in the Sipsong Tjao Tai region was called sin luea suea bor por (long skirts and short blouses) as shown in the dress of a Tai Dam noble woman collected by the Musée d l’Homme in 1931 (Hemmet, 1995 p.49) and still existing textiles and clothing in Houa Phan province (the Xam Nuea region), the provinces of Lai Chau, Son La, Hoa Binh, Thanh Hoa and Nghe An in Vietnam that have maintained many of their original styles. These latter areas and their historical muang can be seen as sub-styles that can shed light on the original Sipsong Tjao Tai style. Differences, such as colour preferences and waistbands, can be used to classify the sub-styles of the Sipsong Tjao Tai style, one of which was the Xam Nuea style that in turn had several sub-styles.
The sojourn of Phuan
Nhge An had a noticeable effect on the textiles of both regions. Muang
style shoulder cloths are seen in Nghe An just as the sin bork tube
skirt of the Nghe An style is woven in Muang Phuan. In the 20th
century Muang Phuan received an unprecedented concentration of bombing
The Nam Noen region is another melting pot of styles, where numerous Lao-Tai groups from both Nghe An and Muang Phuan have settled since the Second Indochina War. The weavers have adjusted their textiles to the style of the Nam Noen region. The dominant group are the Tai Moei who share the area with Tai Khang, Phuan, Tai Mat and others.
The muang classification system
textile styles is
most useful for the identification of textiles that have been removed
their original locations and show confusing stylistic elements. The Tai
are interesting for this kind of comparative study, having fled or been
from their home in M. Khang, Muang Phuan, into various regions of Lao
A similar example can be given for textiles from M. Hun, Udomxay province, Lao P.D.R. Here a group of textiles of extraordinary beauty was produced that have been identified as Tai Lue textiles by some researchers, but many elements in the textiles are not typical of Tai Lue textiles in other regions. More detailed research shows elements of the Muang Phuan style in these textiles and, in fact, they were woven by Phuan peoples who had relocated in M. Hun, a region controlled by Tai Lue chiefs. The textiles would be more accurately classified as M. Hun style, which would incorporate the combination of the Sipsong Panna style (the homeland of the Tai Lue) and the Muang Phuan style.
With the increased complexity of ethnic integration and stylistic adaptation of Lao-Tai textiles, a new method of classification is necessary to incorporate more recent stylistic changes relating to their geographic location than the existing classification system based on ethnicity. This research suggests the identification of textiles by muang styles and provenance, and only secondarily by ethnicity. My most recent publication Lao-Tai textiles: The texitles of Muang Xam Nuea and Muang Phuan provides a stylistic record of textiles from those regions for this purpose. With this system, textiles can be analysed for evidence of migrations, regional overlapping, belief systems, and influences of outside political powers. The elements in a textile that give us information for identification purposes are the local names, complete structures, colour preferences, raw materials, techniques, weaving densities and favourite motifs. Knowledge of Lao-Tai culture and the indigenous muang system is necessary to understand the original function and status of the textiles while the history and geography of the region is necessary to map centres of political power and the migration patterns of the Lao-Tai groups in and out of different muang targeted. Finally, knowledge of weaving techniques is essential for analysing the textiles.
The evolution of Lao-Tai textiles was not a result of ethnicity but a result of economic and socio-political interests that related directly to their geographical locations. Historically all the Lao-Tai groups shared a common origin and culture as well as most weaving techniques, raw materials for weaving and textiles motifs, but as they migrated further away from their original communities and established new ones, they prioritised certain elements in their textiles and clothing that became particular to each muang. The extraordinary homogeneous quality of the textiles from certain regions correlating with the locations of ancient Lao-Tai muang has been the focus point of this research and the basis of my hypothesis that textiles can be studied as a material lexicon of tributary relations in the Lao-Tai world.
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This most informative and delightfully entertaining talk, illuminated with the presentation of many historical images, was followed by an equally well-informed and enlightening question an answer session - which included a question concerning ethnic underwear - after which the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Patricia in more informal conversation over intoxicating beverages and snacks.