Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textile Society of America 9th Biennial Symposium, (2004).


Presented at “Appropriation • Acculturation • Transformation,” Textile Society of America 9th Biennial Symposium, Oakland, California, October 7-9, 2004. Copyright 2004 Textile Society of America.


Over a million Li people, representing approximately fifteen percent of the total population, live predominantly in the mountainous areas of Hainan, China. The island is rich in silk, hemp, ramie and cotton. The Li, a tribal people, began spinning, weaving and dyeing in ancient times and developed over the centuries a reputation for the quality and beauty of their textiles. Although the clothing and textiles of the various Li sub-tribes span a range of style and design, all – with one exception – clearly emanate from Li religion, culture and tradition, sharing roots with other Daic-speaking groups.

Several years ago, large, silk-embroidered cotton hangings appearing to date to the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, came onto the Chinese market. Although they were attributed to the Li, they looked more like ceremonial hangings for a Chinese emperor than a Chinese minority. Intrigued by this inconsistency, I went to Hainan. Through research and interviews I concluded that some time during the Ming period, the Court in Peking began to send prototype paintings filled with imperial symbols to Hainan for the Li to copy in the form of rich embroidered panels. These were then sent back to the Imperial Palace as tribute. It appears that some Li also made dragon covers covertly and hid them from the authorities. Over time the hangings became a secretive component of major Li ceremonies. With the help of 35 mm slides, projected on two screens simultaneously, this presentation compares the dragon covers with the splendid array of other Li textiles; then discusses how the material and production of Li indigenous weavings paved the way for their creation. It explores how a basically “foreign” textile assumed a clandestine, yet vital, role in Li culture and how, in the mid-20th century, political events forced dragon covers into the open and eventually created yet another transformation in their use and purpose.