In celebration of the 2023 Lunar New Year (the Year of the Rabbit), the MSU Museum is featuring its collection of traditional Chinese bamboo basketry.
Southwest China, which borders Vietnam to the South, is known for its striking physical beauty, and the region’s mountainous karst formations have been a UNESCO world heritage site since 2007. Southwest China is also home to the country’s largest population of China’s more than 50 ethnic minorities, each with distinct cultural traditions. Intangible culture—such as the transmission of folklore and knowledge like storytelling and artistry—are integral to the continuation of culture and traditional heritage. It is the preservation and celebration of these transmissible and inheritable cultural traditions that has spurred a more than decade-long continued partnership between American and Chinese folklorists funded by a series of major grants from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Dr. Kurt Dewhurst, Director Emeritus & Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the MSU Museum, has played a crucial role in this lasting partnership. The MSU Museum has partnered with Chinese and American museum officials across multiple languages and thousands of miles to promote the continuation of such intangible traditional artforms, including the housing of a collection of traditional Chinese bamboo baskets for the Folk Arts Division of the MSU Museum. The baskets in the MSU folk arts collections are from villages where deep fieldwork was conducted, including the photographs of the artists. Rather than placing an emphasis solely on decorative basketry, there was a focus to collect artforms that play important roles in everyday lives.
One example is the double-woven bamboo rice basket made by the local master artisan Li Guici. Mr. Li is Baiku Yao (literal translation “White trouser Yao”), of the Huaii village of Guangxi province. This cube-shaped basket was made from twill woven bamboo, with a square-shaped lid that fits snugly around the body of the basket. With a longer woven handle, these baskets are often used as everyday food and rice containers and sometimes transported to work or hung at home by the handle to avoid pests. (2018:53.7)
Another example is a gourd bamboo basket, made by master artisan Qin Shiqing in Sanjiang county of the Guanxi province. Mr. Qin is a member of the Dong ethnicity group. To make this basket, bamboo is masterfully woven around a hollowed gourd, which has been used in traditional basketry in Southeast China for centuries. They are often used for food storage, due to their ability to retain moisture and thus keep food fresh. The gourd has an opening cut into the top like a lid, which is fastened to a basket hoop handle (2018:53.10).
Baskets in China
Handwoven bamboo baskets are still predominantly used throughout China today. They provide a glimpse into established cultural practices with a deep and rich history—just like the Lunar New Year, which has been celebrated for millennium. With a commitment to equity, collaboration, and mutually beneficial practices, this China-US Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage Project provides us with contemporary examples of how the MSU Museum works to enrich their collections while also importantly promoting the continuation and flourishing traditional heritage in Southwest China.