The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. We're highlighting the research of this year's fellows in a series of online profiles.
Yupeng Wu '21, History of Art
"Exhibiting Miao Textiles: Minority Politics in China and the (Re)Imagining of a Miao Identity"
Abstract: This study looks at the embroidered textiles of the Miao people, a minority ethnic group from Southwest China. Through exploring museum collections of Miao textiles and exhibitions that feature these textiles both in and outside China, this study pays close attention to donor information, provenance of objects, and curatorial frameworks to examine how Miao textiles are collected and exhibited. The goal of the study is to consider what these collections and exhibitions reveal about the construction of a Miao identity in the context of minority politics, the identity politics that concerns minority nationalities in China. With a focus on two case studies of museum exhibitions on Miao minority textiles ("Lasting Tales, from Imaginative Hands" at the Hermès Maison, Shanghai, and "Ceremonial Dress from Southwest China: the Ann B. Goodman Collection" at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), this study also discusses the production of the concept of minzu (民族) in China, a multiethnic state, and the power relations behind the hierarchies of various nationalities.
Was there anything surprising about the work you did for your project?
I was surprised by how much my project changed from initial proposal to final product. These changes were mostly due to restrictions from the pandemic and the materials that were accessible for me. Initially I intended this project to be ethnographic research and I was going to visit several museums in southern China. Instead, I shifted to a museum anthropology approach and used my previous experience studying these textiles from a project I completed for my internship at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. I worked under the supervision of the keeper of the Asian section of the museum and my main project involved cataloging ethnic minority textiles. I worked with one textile piece for the summer and wrote an essay about my work for the museum. That essay led to this project and I was able to utilize my work there for this research.
How will you use your research in future studies?
I will not continue this research itself but it has allowed me to further explore textiles, materiality, and identity politics. I am considering attending graduate school for art history following graduation and this research will contribute to my studies after Bryn Mawr.
How did you choose your research topic?
I was anxious about starting this research because my original proposal was heavily based on travel and being able to see and interact with what I was studying. The textiles in China that I studied are not well digitized so I did not have access to good photos of them and remote interviews would not have worked well for my approach either. Due to these obstacles, I decided to write about a few exhibitions on Miao textiles that I've visited before. I wanted to explore how museums frame material culture and structure the culture of a people in their exhibitions. These textiles of the Miao people are currently very commoditized and their villages have become tourist destinations. These traditional textiles and designs have been made to signify the otherness of the Miao people, especially women, who have been framed as outdated and backward. Museums have contributed to this commoditization through exhibitions and cooperation with the fashion industry, like with Hermès in Shanghai. I wanted to investigate how museums have contributed to the appropriation of these textiles through material culture.
The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. Each summer, Bryn Mawr College awards up to 15 students a summer fellowship of $4,500 to undertake an independent research project in the humanities or humanistic social sciences. The research may either be the beginning of the senior thesis or a project that stands alone, but is relevant to their intellectual interests and must be supported by a faculty advisor.