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The Unique Costumes of the 56 Ethnic Groups of China: Intro

This guide accompanies the Unique Costumes exhibit at Rosenberg Library.

Exhibit Introduction

China is a multi-ethnic country with a 5,000 year old history. China’s diverse geography, with its vast mountain chains, forests, deserts and thousands of miles of rivers, has allowed a wide variety of ethnic groups to flourish in different parts of China. This has combined to create in China, “a Nation of Clothes and Crowns,” a rich and variegated culture of clothing. Dress in China is the product of human labor, exquisite craftsmanship, aesthetic taste and a wide assortment of ethnic sub-cultures, each with its own unique set of folk customs and religions, some thousands of years old. As a result the diverse clothing of China’s minorities has come to enrich the lives of the people of all ethnic groups and be a beautiful and continuing element of China’s cultural landscape.

The clothing worn by China’s various ethnic groups is also a valuable resource in the study of Chinese cultural history, known as “a long river of dazzling stars.” The study of China’s multiethnic sub-cultures has become a way of understanding its unique form of Oriental civilization. Chinese dress, like Chinese culture, is the result of the blending of all ethnic groups in this vast land, where 56 separate ethnic groups have now been officially recognized. In modern times this culture of clothing has been expanded by the absorption of modern forms of dress from many foreign cultures and nationalities throughout the world. While the Chinese Han remains the largest of the ethnic groups, the result of this blending of styles of clothing creates a panoply of dress that is endlessly colorful and endlessly surprising in modern China.

Exhibit: The Unique Costumes of the 56 Ethnic Groups of China

32.苗族-苗繡 Miao Embroiderers Hard At Work

Terminology

About the word costume:

There are several definitions of the word costume. One is very simple: it is a synonym for attire, clothing, etc. Another definition is "clothing that represents a certain culture or time period."

The word costume is used in the title of this exhibit: the clothing in this exhibit were manufactured to respresent each culture, and were not made by members of that culture. In our context, they serve an educational purpose. 

However, the photos from China that are included in the exhibit are all of real people wearing real clothing. It is important to make that distinction. 

Even though there are other definitions of costume, there is a general understanding in the US that costumes are something that you wear on Halloween. Regardless of the context, if someone is wearing traditional attire from their culture, you would not refer to it as a costume. 

You can and should form your own opinion about whether the word Costume in the title feels appropriate or not. Should the title be something like Unique Attire instead? Would you have a different opinion if clothing from your own culture was being represented in the exhibit? 

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