Chinese Museums: In Pursuit of Preserving the Culture

The Museum of Ethnic Costumes is a cultural research institute and one of the 10 best specialized museums in China.
by Prof. Sudha Dhingra
Exhibits on the wall of the Lingerie Museum. By Prof. Sudha Dhingra

Every visit to China is a window to new sights and insights. In March this year, on my third visit – for an international conference at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (BIFT) – I met a variety of people from diverse fields.

After my first trip to China in 1998, last year, I visited Shenzhen for the International Cultural Industries Trade Fair. That gave me a glimpse of China’s efforts to preserve, protect, promote and market its tangible and non-tangible cultural assets and aspects.

China today is vastly more developed. Beijing is flourishing, affluent and attractive. In the last decade, people across the world have got well exposed to technological advancements and the Chinese capacity to mass manufacture goods for all markets and segments. However, I was more surprised by Chinese efforts to preserve, promote and take pride in their heritage.

Exhibits on the wall of the Lingerie Museum.  By Prof. Sudha Dhingra 

On the conference’s second day, we visited the Museum of Ethnic Costumes in  BIFT. On entering the third floor of BIFT’s general building, the first thing I saw was a huge map of China, with dots in many colors indicating the location of minority ethnic people in the various provinces.

The Museum of Ethnic Costumes is a cultural research institute and one of the 10 best specialized museums in China. It has a fabulous collection of costumes, textiles and accessories belonging to various ethnic groups from China. The museum has six halls showcasing Han, Miao, Zhuang and Mongolian people besides many other minorities.

I was awestruck by the vastness of the space, the wealth of material and the beautifully mounted artifacts which were well displayed. Each piece was preserved with care and attention. The museum has a hall of trappings; and, sections on gold jewelry, batik and indigo-dyed textiles, costumes and accessories. We were informed that the exhibits – old pieces in silver, precious stones and other metals – were authentic, not replicas. The documentation was excellent with elaborate captions in Chinese and English. Each ethnic group’s clothes and accessories like headgear, shoes and jewelry were mounted on stands, cases and specially-created structures. The preservation of the pieces was immaculate. Special clothing and ceremonial clothing were also displayed.

The Miao people live in South China, mainly in Hunan, Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. The beautiful skirts, jackets, pants and robes of Chinese patterned silks, delicately embroidered with satin stitches in white, pale pink, sapphire blue and other rich hues were so eye-catching that I could have spent hours studying their structure and imagery.

Intricately embroidered baby-carriers which women used for strapping infants on their back, embroidered tiny shoes which would have attracted the attention of young girls, and bags specially made for storing coins, jewelry and silks, were some of the museum’s proud possessions.

The Mongolian Barag tribe’s costume with lantern sleeves could inspire many a design student in the world. Furs and skins, fish-skin coats and pants of the Hezhen people and deer-leather bags and gloves of the Mongolians were showcased for visitors to admire the skill of the craftspeople.

The Han people’s costumes included shirts, gowns, undergarments, waistcoats and very interesting accessories such as forehead bands, ear-tabs and handkerchief. Silver ornaments for the body and hair were displayed with photographs elaborating how these are to be worn. Heavy silver ornaments for waist, chest, wrists and head were mesmerizing. In one item of head gear, the most intricate layers of fine, delicate flowers made in silver metal had assorted handcrafted butterflies, bees, dragonflies and praying mantises nestling around a phoenix, the mythical bird symbolizing power and beauty.

Many types of looms used for putting together the elaborately-woven silks and tapestries known as kesi were displayed in the museum. The museum has more than 10,000 objects in its collection, out of which about 500 are displayed. It was a treasure house for students and scholars not only of fashion, but also of history and textiles.

Next day, we visited a lingerie factory, which surprisingly had a museum on its premises. One huge wall in the museum was dedicated to the history of lingerie in the world, giving details of patents and trends. Another wall depicted the history of lingerie in China. The museum also housed the company’s range of lingerie styles tastefully exhibited on mannequins and wall panels.

My three-day stay in Beijing was very exciting. The visits to two very different museums – the Museum of Ethnic Costumes and the Lingerie Museum – afforded me an insight into the rich culture and heritage of China. It is an impressive testimony to the resolve and attempts of the people and organizations to preserve their past so as to have a meaningful present and an enriching future.


The author is Chairperson of Textile Design Department, National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi, India.