Sunday, March 12, 2017

Chinese Valentine's Day traditionally falls on February, but few know it

A couple dressed in traditional red costumes sit quietly in the middle of a stage for their Ming-style wedding ceremony. Behind them stand two girls, carefully cutting off small tufts of the bride's and groom's hair. The girls then place the locks together into a small embroidered bag. To celebrate Lantern Festival this year, a traditional Chinese wedding performance was held at Shanghai Mass Art Center (SMAC). Hundreds of visitors watched the wedding, which incorporated customs and traditions popular among the Han people during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

A Ming-style wedding ceremony is held in Shanghai Mass Art Center on Lantern Festival, which is regarded as Chinese Valentine's Day.

Lantern Festival is also known as Chinese Valentine's Day. In ancient China, people liked to carry colorful self-made lanterns and visit local temples, enjoying various kinds of lanterns together with families and friends.

"Even unmarried young women, who usually stayed at home, were allowed to go out on that special day," said the wedding performance organizer Wu Juanya.

Because of the inclusion of single young females during Lantern Festival, it inadvertently became an opportunity to meet and date people of the opposite sex. Over time, girls started "dolling up" in beautiful dresses and jewelry to attract suitors.

Nonetheless, today most people think of Qixi Festival (July 7 according to the lunar calendar) rather than Lantern Festival as Chinese Valentine's Day.

"Actually, Qixi was a day for females to pray to the gods for intelligence and better needlework skills," Wu explained, "not meet men."

In order to make this year's Lantern Festival feel more romantic, Wu together with SMAC decided to host an ancient-style wedding performance.

Utilizing delicate wedding costumes and elaborate customs such as jie fa (when the bride and groom cut off a small tuft of their hair to declare everlasting love), the event was quite an unusual sight for younger and urban people in the audience.

In ancient China, people wore masks during Chinese New Year to scare away ghosts and evil spirits, but now people wear them for fun.

Awareness among younger generations

Apart from the wedding, SMAC also hosted a handicrafts fair with dozens of stalls selling homemade incense, ornaments and masks. In front of one mask stall, a little boy excitedly tried on a qilin (a mythical Chinese animal that is much like unicorn) mask with the help of his mother.

The stall's owner, Gu Jun, was selling his self-painted masks for 20 yuan ($2.9) each. "In ancient China, people wore masks on New Year's Eve to scare away ghosts and evil spirits," Gu said, adding that he hopes such types of traditional masks will help introduce Chinese traditional culture and its customs to the younger generations.

A person practices Chinese calligraphy with a writing brush.

Nearby, foreigner Rachel Punter was selecting embroidery handbags and bookmarks as souvenirs and gifts. Punter, who has been in Shanghai for only 18 months, heard about SMAC's event from her Chinese teacher.

"But I've never experienced this before," the chemistry teacher said. "It's a pity that I arrived too late today to see the Chinese wedding performance, but I won't miss other performances."

Cross-talk stage comedies and Kunqu and Yueju operas, along with interactive activities like calligraphy and a tea ceremony, were also being held at the event, with hundreds of visitors, locals and expats alike, taking part.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Chinese villagers honor married women with ancient chicken ceremony

A village in southwest China staged a traditional wedding ritual this week that pits ancient traditions against modern views on animal welfare in a fast changing country.

The ceremony held in the ethnic Kam minority village of Gantuan in Guizhou province is based on a tradition dating back some 500 years that was revived and modified in the 1990s for villagers and tourists.

"I feel a little nervous and a little happy," Shi Litao, a 26-year-old bride wearing heavy layers of makeup and a colorful costume, said before the ceremony on the Chinese New Year.

The event, known locally as "steal the chicken at the drum tower," involves young men competing to be the first to tear apart live birds carried on poles by new brides into the village center.

It is rooted in the past when a bride was expected to marry a cousin, according to village chief Huang Xuexian.

If she wished to marry outside the family, her suitor and cousin would compete to be the first to bite off the head of a tethered chicken or duck and "win" the bride. This ritual was abandoned long ago as attitudes on marriage changed, said Huang.

"It was later that people realized this was not the correct way to marry. Now we have the freedom to marry whom we want," he said.

In the 1990s the village introduced a modified version of the ceremony that still involves young men tearing the live birds from the poles carried by the brides.

Huang defended the ceremony, saying there had been no public opposition to the annual event.

"This is our custom and this has never generated any controversy," he said.

Pet ownership and better education on animal welfare have fueled greater public sympathy for animal rights, activists say, but legal protection proposed in 2009 has not been implemented.

"China does not have a comprehensive law for ensuring the wellbeing of all animals or an anti-cruelty law for protecting animals," said Peter Li, China policy advisor for Humane Society International. He blamed "business interests involved in animal exploitation such as bear farming."

Friday, January 20, 2017

An Intricately Illustrated 19th-Century Study of Global Fashions

In 1876, French scholar and artist Auguste Racinet published Le Costume historique (The Costume History), an illustrated sartorial tour throughout world history. This six-volume work, with 500 detailed color illustrations, spanned millennia, from the ancient Egyptians' plumed headdresses to bedazzled medieval crowns to the felt leggings of 19th-century Russian peasants. To this day, the book remains the most thorough and intricately illustrated study of global fashions ever attempted.

Now, this "Bible of Costume," as French newspaper Le Figaro called it, has been reprinted in its colorful entirety by Taschen. The publishing house had previously printed a compilation of Racinet's plates, but the newest version is arranged according to his original organization by culture and subject, and presents his witty commentary alongside the illustrations. It's an accessible, elaborate visual history of all the weird, uncomfortable clothes people thought looked good, from massive, powdered wigs to feathered war helmets. Contemporary artists, designers, illustrators, and historians will find no shortage of inspiration in its pages.

Thanks to globalization, the hyper-specific traditional clothing styles of individual cultures around the world are now in danger of extinction; they're increasingly being replaced by the mass-manufactured contemporary uniform of T-shirts and jeans. France's styles are no longer as distinct from England's as they were in the 18th century; clothing no longer signifies social status as obviously as it did in ages of bejeweled royalty lording over peasantry. In this context, The Costume History is a documentary treasure trove, compactly preserving outmoded styles all in one place. "For the 21st-century reader, [The Costume History] offers a chance to reconstruct ancient times, an exercise of memory and imagination that has its own charms," writes Francoise Tetart-Vittu in the book's introduction.

That doesn't mean The Costume History is without its problems. "Let there be no mistake, this work dates from the period when the West dreamed of establishing an indefinite reign over the entire world," Tetart-Vittu writes. Racinet's 19th-century colonialist bias comes through in his book's Eurocentrism; for example, he devotes a mere 15 illustrations to the clothing and ornament of the African continent, as opposed to dozens of illustrations and pages of text on the fashions of his native France. "The wide range of authors that Racinet consulted when undertaking his panorama of national and ethnic customs included very disparate sources, such as Latin writers and the narratives of explorers now forgotten. But the sources that he synthesizes with such brio were almost invariably European."

Still, Tetart-Vittu argues that "When we read Racinet attentively, we cannot but perceive his openness of mind. The notion of constituting a sort of general archive of costume, including in a single work all times, places, epochs, forms and tastes — the very idea of demonstrating the eclecticism of the world's cultures — takes its place in a vast project tending to emphasize the extraordinary diversity of humankind."

Sunday, December 11, 2016

11 iconic Miss Universe National Costumes

During the early years of the Miss Universe Pageant, the national costumes were mostly wearable traditional dresses that highlighted the countries' rich history and culture.

As the pageant grew bigger and the competition, stiffer, the national costumes became more extravagant as a way to be noticed. But it wasn't until 1962 that the Best in National Costume Award was given. The first recipient was Miss England 1962, Kim Carlton, who wore a sexy, mini version of a Beefeater uniform. Little did she know that decades later, popular Halloween costumes would be the ultra-sexy version of almost any uniform or profession.


The most successful continent is Asia with a total number of 21 wins. Thailand leads the pack with 6 wins (1969, 1988, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2015). Thai costumes exude a sense of royalty and are inherently rich and luxurious with the use of gold, embroidery, and silk. But the inspirations are quite varied and unique with only the 1969 and 1988 versions depicting the more traditional form.

In 2015, Thailand's Aniporn Chalermburanawong chose to wear a tuk-tuk inspired costume. It was made of chromium and featured working headlights. Hirankrit Paipibulkul designed this now iconic take on the iconic tuk tuk.


Before there were Victoria's Secret Angels, there were the jaw-dropping costumes from South America. This continent has scored a total of 16 wins. Most are the various depictions of pre-Columbian themes, featuring ancient civilizations and their deities. Expect a plethora of plummage, sequins, ornate headdresses, and dramatic wing pieces.

Although Colombia has the most wins with 6 (1968,1985,1990, 1991, 1997, 2002), the most memorable has to be that of Pamela Zarza, Miss Paraguay 1992. She wore what is believed to be the biggest (12 feet tall) and heaviest costume of all time. It was so enormous that she could barely move around on the stage and covered all the delegates behind her. Makes you wonder how she managed to transport this from Paraguay to Bangkok, Thailand.


The Philippines won the Best in National Costume Award in 1994 when the pageant was held in Manila. Charlene Gonzalez wore a Pitoy Moreno creation inspired by the Bagobo and Higanon native dresses. The costume used native t'nalak materials with an authentic Bagobo belt and Higanon headdress. Charlene ended up among the Top 6 finalists.


Miss Japan 2006 Kurara Chibana is credited for popularizing the powerful female warrior national costume trend. She wore an ultra sexy, fierce, red samurai costume complete with a samurai sword. Shin guards never looked more sexy when paired with high heels. Kurara slayed the competition and won Best in National Costume. She showed that an empowered, strong woman doesn't have to act like a man. Her strength lies simply in being a woman.

Although she was the crowd favorite, Kurara settled for first runner-up to Puerto Rico's Zuleyka Rivera.


Miss Universe China 2012, Ji Dan Xu, looked exquisite in her white and blue gown inspired by a Chien Dynasty-styled vase from ancient China with a huge fan headdress accented with two very long tassles for more drama. This was created by Chinese designer, Guo Pei, and was featured in her Spring/Summer 2010 Haute Couture Collection. Luxury, class, and elegance are personified in this amazing costume. A perfect blend of costume, couture, and pageantry. It was very refreshing to see haute couture instead of the garish and outlandish costumes we are used to seeing on the Miss Universe stage.

Miss Universe winners who won Best in National Costume

The National Costume Competition is not part of the scoring that determines the semi-finalists and winner in Miss Universe. However, it is a great way to stand out from the rest of the candidates. There have been 3 instances where the Best in National Costume eventually won Miss Universe.

1988 – Thailand

Porntip Nakhirunkhanok wore a traditional Thai dress. By today's standards, this costume seems to be very simple, lacking the stage drama of previous winning costumes. She went on to win Thailand's second Miss Universe crown.

1998 – Trinidad/Tobago

Wendy Fitzwilliam, in a very sexy, sequined, gold two piece Carnivale creation by Harts Carnival with very long pheasant feathers, perfectly complemented Wendy's golden complexion and 6' frame. Wendy convincingly won Trinidad and Tobago's second crown.

2003 – Dominican Republic

Amelia Vega wore this colorful, fantasy interpretation of the Carribean sea with corals, seahorses, and starfish. She is the tallest Miss Universe standing at 6'2". It's no wonder she could pull off this very heavily embellished costume and win the Dominican Republic's first-ever Miss Universe crown.

It would be interesting to see if the candidates will continue the empowered female warrior costumes; stick to the fantasy, Las Vegas, carnivale-inspired costumes; or go back to the wearable, native, traditional dresses of the past.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

With dolls and costumes, Hakka people celebrate ancient history

LOOKING like living dress-up dolls, elaborately costumed children are paraded through an eastern China village as firecrackers roar, commemorating the end of barbaric child sacrifices hundreds of years ago.

It's an annual event in the village of Tufang in coastal Fujian Province, where China's Hakka community is concentrated and marks its unique history with a range of colorful festivals.

Nearly 700 years ago, people in the area sacrificed children to ward off local demons.

But a pair of now-legendary figures, Tu Dalang and Lai Balang, left their homes to establish Tufang as a new village free of the barbaric practise.

They are said to have later traveled to mountains deeper in China's interior.

There, they learnt magic powers they could use to slay demons, eventually returning to Tufang.

The pair are now revered as god-like figures able to influence weather and bestow blessings.

To honor them, Tufang villagers bore palanquins upon which young children stood, arrayed in colorful ancient Chinese dress along with exaggerated make-up and elaborate head-dresses.

Residents set up outdoor tables of incense and candles to welcome them as firecrackers thundered, showering the streets with their shredded red wrappings while security personnel in protective gear stood guard against fires.

The ceremonies accompanied the Lantern Festival, which officially fell this year on last Saturday, but whose run-up and aftermath are marked by Hakka observances in Fujian.

The Hakka, which means "guest," are Chinese who speak their own eponymous dialect and have a history as wanderers that has given birth to a number of singular cultural rituals.

A similar observance took place in the Fujian village of Luofang, where 14 children were dressed in traditional attire to represent the seven dominant local families.

They were carried in pairs — one child on top representing a local hero and another below portraying his bodyguard.

A designated pair occupies the lead spot while the others gently jockeying behind to avoid being last.

The procession also is intended to represent seven Chinese virtues including loyalty, honesty, mercy and peace.

It was accompanied by fireworks, the aroma of incense and locals praying for a good harvest.