Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Whole New Language

By Cindy DeLong
UNL Graduate Student
Here we see a dragon motif worked into a quilt block.
Are those rams horns depicted in each of the corners?
What do they represent?
(IQSCM 2012.040.0007)

China – she is half way around the globe.

From where I live it’s a 19-hour trip. Yes in a mere 19 hours I can be in the hustle and bustle of Beijing, one of the world’s biggest and busiest cities. I’ve been to New York City, an American metropolis. Aside from the obvious language differences, these cities have much in common. With the global technology-based world we live in today, it’s easy to make the comparison. 

One thing that is markedly different, however, is the cultural history. 

In preparation for our upcoming research trip to China, I have been reading about Chinese history, art, and culture. One thing that stands out to me more than anything is the development of symbols (we might call them motifs) as a meaningful language in and of themselves. Historically, in some of the more isolated minority Chinese societies, these symbols were often used in clothing and other crafted objects and in absence of a formal written language, were a method of non-verbal communication.

We are familiar with the Chinese dragon motif, for example. But, why a dragon? What does it mean when a dragon motif is used on a robe? What are some of the meanings of Yin and Yang? How are they used? Have meanings changed over time?

The double coin motif and "quatrefoils" are seen often in
quilts from the collection. Why? Do they have
significant meaning?
(IQSCM 2012.040.0006)
The literature I have been reviewing delves into the rich centuries-long history of Chinese symbols, many of which are not understood. Their meanings have been lost through time and lack of a surviving written explanation. Fish, bats, tigers, pomegranates, and many other motifs represent ideas such as prosperity, good luck, protection, and fertility. The Chinese belief in magic and the many different political and religious influences have all contributed to the development of their symbol vocabulary.

Recently, I have been familiarizing myself with the IQSCM’s collection of Chinese quilts. Some, the more recently made ones, bear similarity to western-quilt styles, yet others are very different. There are quilts with animal, flora, fauna, and an array of other traditional Chinese motifs. Were these symbols used to convey a concept such as happiness or wealth?

I think I many leave China with many more unanswered than answered questions, and an even greater curiosity!

Cindy DeLong is working on a master's degree in textile history with an emphasis in quilt studies at UNL. She has a bachelor of sciences in home economics (clothing and textiles) and journalism from the University of Missouri. She has worked at the New England Quilt Museum as a curatorial intern and the International Quilt Study Center & Museum as a collections intern.

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