Horsetail embroidery: Legendary handicraft of Chinese Shui people

Horsetail embroidery being showcased in the Legend of Water Museum in Sandu Shui Autonomous County Photo: Chunmei

Horsetail embroidery is a traditional handicraft of Shui minority women in Sandu Shui Autonomous County, Guizhou Province.

As its name suggests, horsetail embroidery uses horsetail hair and silk thread as raw materials. While the origin of horsetail embroidery remains unclear, it has been passed by Shui women for generations, which is why this traditional handicraft is also called “living fossil” of Chinese embroidery.

Shui women in the Legend of Water Museum in Sandu Shui Autonomous County are showing visitors how to make horsetail embroidery. Photo: Chunmei

The Shui (Sui) people (水族) are one of China’s 56 ethnic groups including the Han group, and living mainly in the Sandu Shui Autonomous County (三都水族自治县) of southwest China’s Guizhou Province.

It is said that Shui people are descendants of the ancient Baiyue (百越) people who had lived in southern China before the Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China after the Qin dynasty.

Horsetail embroidery shoes on display in the Legend of Water Museum in Sandu Shui Autonomous County. Photo: Chunmei

Horsetail embroidery is often used to make decorations on clothes, shoes, wallets and T-shaped bags for carrying babies on the back. A thread for embroidering is spun into three thin threads, which then entwine three to four pieces of horsetail hair. The hair is used to create different patterns. Cross-stitching, flat embroidery, and random embroidery are also needed to complete a piece.

Part of horsetail embroidery costume Photo: Chunmei

Horsetail embroidery is intricate, and a dress decorated with horsetail embroidery may take more than a month to complete.

In 2006, horsetail embroidery has been listed as a national intangible cultural heritage by the Chinese government in a bid to preserve this traditional handicraft.

Besides horsetail embroidery, there are other cultural heritage of Shui people that Chinese government is trying to protect, among which “Shui Shu” (水书) or “Shui Scripts” is one of the most typical representations of Shui culture.

Literally “Shui” means water and “Shu” means book in Chinese, but together “Shui Shu” refers to the traditional language of Shui people who are now using modern Chinese as most of the Han people do.

Shui Shu on display in the Legend of Water Museum in Sandu Shui Autonomous County. Photo: Chunmei

Traditionally, the Shui people tend to live near rivers and streams, and they believe the greatest benevolent is like water which benefits other people, but doesn’t take any reward from other people.

Shui Shu uses pictographs which are similar to jiaguwen (甲骨文) found on the ancient oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty and the jinwen (金文) on ancient ritual bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

There are even scholars who believe that Shui Shu preceded jiaguwen and is, in fact, “the source of the Chinese language”.

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