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Fieldwork: Highlights from the Basketry and Architecture Group

I have been delayed in finishing up the series on the December 2017 trip to China that colleagues and I undertook. I am happy to return to the series here. Earlier posts described sites visited in Beijing (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), partnership activities in Nanning (6, 7) and the contexts of our fieldwork in Nandan County (8). In this post I quickly highlight some of the particularly exciting moments in the fieldwork of the research team that was focused on local Baiku (White Trouser) Yao basketry and vernacular architecture. (More on the textile group later.)

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A portion of Manjiang village, a Baiku Yao community, viewed from above. December 14, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

Undoubtedly, we will always remember our time with Li Guicai in Huaili village. We spent two days with him as he made an elaborate and beautiful bamboo basket for sticky rice. We video recorded nearly every moment of the making of this basket over the course of two work days in which Mr. Li worked nearly continuously. His skill and industriousness left of speechless. After the basket was complete, he offered us an rich interview on his life and the history of his work as a maker of baskets. Generously, he sold us the basket that we documented with him and it is now in the collections of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. For my friends who know about the river cane basketry of the Southern United States, Mr. Li’s basket was made with the same basic double weave techniques found in the baskets of the Cherokee and other indigenous groups.

With Mr. Li, we began to learn about how baskets are made among the Baiku Yao. In the households of two of his neighbors, we learned something of how baskets are used. Two families permitted us to spend time in their homes and inventory all of the baskets owned and used in their households. Inventorying and photographing all of these baskets, we were then able to ask questions about the names of these basket types as well as learn the range of uses to which they were put. This process helped us learn about widely used basket types but also extremely specialized basket forms that we did not previously knew existed. For instance, we documented a type of basket used as a body form for pressing pleats into a newly made women’s skirt. The diversity of baskets in use in this community is remarkable and we are very appreciative of the families who generously welcomed us for this strange but instructive exercise.

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Removing the straps that have tied a new pleated skirt in Baiku Yao style around a bamboo pleating basket in a Huaili village household. December 17, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson

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In course of a household basketry inventory, Lijun Zhang poses with the slip of paper used in photographs of the 66th basket documented. December 17, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson

Having learned about basket making and basket use, we also sought to better understand the contemporary economics of basketry. A highlight of this inquiry was time spent with Mr. Li Guozhong. This younger Mr. Li is a basket trader from a family of Baiku Yao basket makers. While he buys and sells locally made baskets, most of those that he sells at his stall in the Lihu town market on market day are purchased instead from middlemen in Guizhou province and transported back across the provincial border by Mr. Li to Lihu for sale to Baiku Yao and other buyers in the local market. Despite our interfering with his sales, we were able to spend the morning on market day with him at his market stand. We inventoried every type he had on offer, recording the local name for the basket type, the price, its basic use, and its local or Guizhou origins. At the conclusion of our discussions with him, I purchased a full set of these baskets for the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. A full account of the collection will come in our research writings later, but for now I note a few of the particularly unusual types that we purchased. One such item is a bamboo basket woven around a ceramic pot that hot coals can be placed and carried in. Such a basket is used as a brazier to keep an individual or small group warm while seated around it. We saw just such a basket in use elsewhere in the Lihu market. Similarly noteworthy are a pair of baskets used by a weaver to hold a shuttle (on one side of the loom) and spent spools (on the other side) while weaving. Such baskets are attached to the loom on both sides of the weaver’s seat. We saw such baskets on the household looms encountered throughout the Baiku Yao villages.

On the architecture front we documented basketry woven gates, house screens, and two types of above ground (on stilts) granaries used by Baiku Yao people. One of these—round in shape—features heavy bamboo basketry walls.

These highlights evoke just a portion of the rich experiences that the basketry and architecture team had during our time among the Baiku Yao people. My colleagues and I feel tremendous appreciation for everyone who hosted and helped us during our visit. Our admiration for the Baiku Yao people and their way of life is very heartfelt.

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The sticky rice basket made by Mr. Li Guicai, documented by the research team, and added to the collections of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. December 16, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

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