If you click here, you will be taken to a Getty Images photograph by Zhang Peng/Light Rocket. The image shows a Lisu woman on her way to a market in Liuku, the prefecture seat for Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan, China. This autonomous prefecture is located northwest of Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, where a group of research collaborators and I visited in 2013 and 2019. Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture is bordered on the west by Myanmar (Burma), on the north by Tibet Autonomous Region, on the Northeast by Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Yunnan), and by Lijiang Prefecture-Level City (Yunnan) to the east and Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture (Yunnan) to the southeast.
Go look at the basket. I’ll wait.
Work on the manuscript dealing with basketry in Southwest China is, happily, now underway. While the study draws on work in communities that my collaborators and I have visited in Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi, I am working to gather information from other parts of the Southwest. I am reading the ethnographies available in English (the Chinese language sources will come later) and finding what I can in museum databases and on the Internet. As I am reading Michele Zack’s The Lisu: Far From the Ruler (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2017) at present, I have been looking for Lisu examples online. This Getty photograph provides a particularly useful example to consider.
The woman in the picture is wearing a pack basket. She is about 250 kilometers west (and a little north) of the Erhai Lake/Old Dali area where our group has documented and collected pack baskets among the Bai. (There are some Bai, speaking a different Bai dialect, among the Lisu in Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture.)
The basket that she wears is different from those of the Dali area in a number of ways. Even using just the picture, some of these can be observed. In common with Dali-area backpacks, hers is also generally “square” (/rectanguar) in profile rather than having a round opening, as among the Baiku Yao in Nandan County, Guangxi. But the two Northwest Yunnan types are different in several other ways. Dali-area backpacks have four sturdy bamboo feet, which hold the backpack level and off of the earth when it is set down. The Liuku are example lacks this feature.
Such feet would not work with the Liuku example because it is less of a rectangular solid and more of a trapizoidal prizm (if I am remembering my geography properly), with a rectangular opening at the top that is larger than the rectangular base at the bottom. This is a feature (manifest more generally in narrowing-to-the-bottom forms) seen in pack baskets from (nearby) highland Myanmar and elsewhere in mainland Southeast Asia.
In addition to differing in shape, the weave of the Liuku area basket is also very different. It is more open, with larger bamboo strips but also larger spaces in between them. The key difference is the way that the vertical elements that run from the base to the rim work. A proper analysis of the weaving techniques in both types would be instructive, but the provisional way to put this is that the Liuku basket seems dependent on these vertical elements, which weave in and out around the static horizontal elements. In Dali-area baskets, in contrast, the vertical elements are static and the weaving is primarily done with very thin horizontal strips that encircle the basket, working upward from the base and producing a basket without large openings.
Comparing the Liuku basket with my own market shopping basket from Xizhouzhen near Dali, I see that the two use the same olive green commercial fabric straps. This commonality is very different, again, from the pack baskets of Nandan County, Guangxi, where the straps are themselves woven out of narrow strips of bamboo.
I wish I could have included the photograph here, but the whole point of Getty Images is to sell use rights to images. I hope that you went and checked out the picture. The picture is worth more than my words, but these words help move the basket study along.