Ethnic Clothes in the Age of the Internet

How do we preserve traditional clothing in the age of the internet? With this aim in mind, the Chinese government has adopted a policy of protecting and preserving ethnic cultural heritage, including its clothes.

After the 1950s, as China modernized, urban Chinese quickly adopted Western-style clothing. By the 1980s, Chinese people followed global fashion. At the beginning of the 21st century, with the advent of the Internet, there is no culture in the world that is isolated.

The clothing of minority ethnic groups in remote regions is modernizing too, albeit more slowly than in cities. Tourism has opened up once-closed communities, and the young people of minority ethnic groups are moving to cities in search of work: many are leaving their traditional clothing behind.

In truth, this move towards the modern has been happening for quite some time. In the 1960s, young men from minority ethnic groups no longer wore jackets made of hand-woven cloth - they bought Western-style white shirts instead; they no longer wore trousers made of hand-woven cloth, but changed into green military trousers instead; they no longer wore hand-woven straw shoes or homemade cloth shoes - they changed into plastic shoes instead; and they replaced head scarves with green military caps..

By the 1980s, young men from minority ethnic groups wore wristwatches instead of traditional ornaments.

Remarkably, women from minority ethnic groups hung on to their traditional clothes for longer, and adopted Western-style clothing in smaller steps. Women still liked wearing their ethnic clothes on most occasions other than schooling and work, and still thought their ethnic clothes beautiful.

But there is a wider issue here other than a sudden, or even gradual, change in clothing styles -can the beautiful ornaments and clothes created over centuries by rich and skilled cultures adapt to - or survive - the modern age?

For example, after coming of age, Yugur women wear head ornaments to indicate that they are ready to participate in society and to get married. These head ornaments are the Yugur people's most important and iconic decorative objects, and they are worn in a specific way: the hair is combed into three plaits, one on the left, one on the right and one in the middle; then, three head ornaments inlaid with silver plates, coral agate, colored beads, and shells are tied to the three plaits. Each of the three head ornaments falls in front of and behind the chest. Each ornament weighs about 3.5 kilograms and consists of three sections linked by metal rings. The upper of each ornament edge is level with the earrings, and the position of the lower edge is determined by the height of the wearer. Girls' head ornaments have additional characteristics - a long red cloth band is decorated with coral beads of different colors and many strings of red, yellow, white, green and blue coral beads and jade stones hang from the forehead, above the eyebrows like a bead curtain. Kazakh women also wear bead curtains across their foreheads, but they are worn on hats. This hat is the hat worn by brides. Unmarried women wear a small bucket-shaped hat sewn with red, green or yellow cotton flannel. The top of the hat is embroidered with golden threads and decorated with owl feathers. The Kazakh people think that owl feathers symbolize bravery and determination. The Kazakh also have round hats made of satin, cotton cloth and otter or sheep-skin. The top of these hats have embroidered patterns and holes with inlaid beads, agate, gold and silver.

In the past, young men and women made items of clothing and garment decorations into tokens of their love. Head ornaments, chest ornaments, handbags, belts, cloth shoes and the soles of shoes were not necessarily made of valuable materials, but they were made with time, effort, and love. Of all the clothes the Maonan people make, the bamboo hat is most famous. Its main function is not protection from the sun and rain as it is more often used as an ornament. Most bamboo hats are given to lovers to indicate their feelings for each other. Bamboo hats are decorated with silver ornaments such as hairpins, combs and rings, and the Maonans also make silver neck rings, silver kylins, silver plates and silver buttons to wear on their green and blue clothes. Dai girls' silver belts can be passed from mothers to daughters, but most silver belts are used as tokens of love - if a girl gives a silver belt to a young man, then she is telling him that she is in love with him.

The "ele" is another ornament that is typically given as a token of love. A long time ago, a beautiful Lisu girl and a handsome Lisu man fell in love. The young man hunted in remote mountains and wild forests all day long. Because he had no clothes, his body was badly scratched by branches. Upon seeing the man's scratches, the girl felt very sad, so she climbed over hills, found wild hemp, extracted the hemp fiber, twisted it into threads and, after many sleepless nights, wove them into a cloth gown and gave it to the young man. In thanks, the young man made an "ele" - a head ornament - with coral bead decoration and gave it to the girl. An "ele" became a girl's head ornament and a token of love between young Lisu men and women.

Traditional clothes are associated with particular stories and are unique because some tribes or ethnic groups are scattered across remote areas - thanks to isolation, the characteristics of their traditional clothes are preserved. Take Lisu ornaments for example. Married Lisu women in the area south of the Nu River wear big bronze or silver earrings that reach their shoulders, "ele" made of coral and giant clam shells on their heads, and neck ornaments made of colored beads and agate that hang down their chests, but Lisu women in the Lijiang area wear cloth head wrappers decorated with beads and bead necklaces. Lisu girls in the Dehong area wear red, white and yellow cloth handkerchiefs decorated with bead ornaments, silver bells and bead pendants; a bobble and threads are tied to the top of the pendant, and several necklaces are worn.

Tourism is a double-edged sword in the context of traditional ethnic clothes - well-made and preserved clothes can make minority ethnic groups' cultures more attractive to tourists, and badly made and diluted clothing traditions start to become mediocre and superficial, driven solely by commercial interests.

The Miao people are an example of a tourist success story. The Miao's silver ornaments are famous both at home and abroad. Miao women in traditional dress wear multiple ornaments fashioned from silver, including flowers, ox horns, hats, combs, hairpins, fans, necklaces, earrings, waist chains, bells, bracelets, and rings. The silver ornaments worn by a Miao woman can weigh 10-15 kilograms. The Miao wear silver ornaments for aesthetic reasons, to display wealth, to pray for blessings, and to ward off evil.

The Miao people have comprehensive silversmith skills and have developed many different shapes and patterns for their ornaments over their long history. There are many different styles of Miao bracelets and necklaces including the hollow, solid, shaving, hexagonal, and columnar styles. Out of all the Miao silver ornaments, the most common item is the horn-shaped head ornament, worn by women, which is also most representative of their style of clothing. Silver ox-horn head ornaments are popular in the southeast of Guizhou, where Miao women put silver ox-horn on top of high buns. These ox-horn are made of sheets of white silver of different thicknesses - their height and width can reach one meter, and they can weigh up to one kilogram. An embossed silver fan spans the space between the two silver horns.

There is also a wood horn-shaped head ornament popular mainly in areas inhabited by Miao people such as Guiyang and Bijie in Guizhou. Ox-horn 50 centimeters long are made of wood, with comb teeth between the two erect horn tips where imitation hair is wound and fixed. Women first draw their long hair into buns, and then they fix the ornaments onto their heads using the imitation hair and black cotton or silk thread. These ox-horn ornaments have origins in primitive worship.

Silver ornamentation aside, richly embroidered Miao clothes are also exquisite. There are more than 17,000 small triangles folded with yellow paper on a bride's embroidered upper garment. A girl begins to make this garment at the age of six or seven and does not finish it until she is of marriageable age. It remains to be seen if a tradition that requires this much skill and dedication can survive the age of the internet.

The Gaoshan people of Taiwan Island are an example of a people who are losing their links to traditional clothes. Until quite recently the Gaoshan retained many of the original ornaments of their culture, made of items such as shell, glazed beads, pig's teeth, bear teeth, feathers, animal hide, flowers, bronze and silver ornaments, decorative coins, and bone or silver buttons. Men and women also wore the bamboo tubes their culture has become famous for. But today young Gaoshan people working as guides on yachts on the Sun Moon Lake wear Western-style shirts, jeans and flip-flops.

What will happen to the traditional clothes of Chinese ethnic minority groups in the 21st century? Only time will tell.