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PostPosted: Mon Dec 31, 2012 12:08 pm 
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“A Little Known Chinese Folk Art: Zhen Xian Bao” by Ruth Smith & Gina Corrigan ISBN 978-0-9528804-4-X published by Ruth Smith & Gina Corrigan in 2012. Soft back book of 140 pages, profusely colour photo-illustrated, plus around a dozen and a half diagrams. Forewords by Liu Qi, Vice Curator of the Ethnic Costume Museum of BIFT (Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology) and Martin Conlan (Slow Lorris). Price: £19.00. Download the PDF attached below for contact details of the authors, information on purchasing including international mailing costs and a PayPal account.

Ruth Smith and Gina Corrigan will be well known to forum members in connection with previous collaborative titles:Miao Embroidery from South West China andMinority Textiles Techniques: Costumes from South West China. This new publication is one that I have been eagerly awaiting. The Mandarin Chinese term Zhen Xian Bao or ‘Needle Thread Pocket’ as directly translated, is relatively new to me – I have called them, less accurately, ‘Thread Booklets’ since becoming aware of them in 2005 when I first saw one in use in the Miao village of Wujiaxhai in Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province on a textile trip led by Gina Corrigan (as shown in photographs on pages 68 and 69 of the book and on the forum). Ruth Smith, as an embroiderer and teacher, has been fascinated by the Zhen Xian Bao and her research has been focused on them since 2005. Her research into their practicalities eventually resulted in four 'Folded Secrets Paper Folding Project books' published in 2012 and they have been the subject of lectures and workshops for some years. Gina Corrigan, who has been travelling to China for more than 40 years, first came across Zhen Xian Bao in the late 1990s in Guizhou Province in use by the Dong minority women in areas where there was a strong textile and embroidery tradition associated with making festival dress. Since then as tourism has developed in Guizhou, international interest in Zhen Xian Bao has grown and they have become collectable.

All the Zhen Xian Bao considered in the book are made from folded paper. They are utilitarian and often home-made, beautifully decorated inside and designed to contain embroidery threads, needles, small textile pieces as well as, sometimes, personal memorabilia. They are in the form of a book but with many three-dimensional pockets which open out rather than pages.

The book considers the historical background and geographical location of Zhen Xian Bao. It is richly illustrated by Gina’s photographs from her many trips to remote Guizhou and Yunnan as well as examples from several collectors. The colours in some of the photos are rather muted although one’s eyes adjusts. Where, however, the images really come to life is when the images of the very many examples of Zhen Xian Bao or individual pockets are shown ‘cut out’ from their background and seem almost 3-D, leaping off the pages! The juxtaposition of background images, details and the almost ‘real’ Zhen Xian Bao is very effective.

The authors have sought to trace the history of Zhen Xian Bao which has proved difficult. Paper disintegrates faster than other art materials and, being utilitarian, they wear out. There do not seem to be records of a paper folding tradition found in the ancient tombs. The Dong and Miao minorities do not have a written tradition. Generally examples have not been gathered even by ethnographic museums and they have been overlooked as a distinct folk art form – which the book attempts to redress. The identification element of the research is based on examples of Zhen Xian Bao examined. They often contain clues such as calligraphy, paper patterns, printed items, photographs and small pieces of embroidery. Even decoding the calligraphy is difficult with translation of a single character changing depending on context. In addition, in the 1950s Chairman Mao and the Communist party simplified the Chinese script and old handwriting may be hard to interpret. However, old or new script can help in dating examples.

I attach below a scan of the contents page of the book.

The first 47 pages introduce Zhen Xian Bao. This includes the authors’ attempts to trace their history with a considerable focus on Guizhou where their research began. This sets the scene geographically and illustrates some of the ethnic dress of the Miao and Dong minorities, the creation of which is strongly linked to the use of Zhen Xian Bao. The book illustrates other forms of needlework containers such as baskets and paperback books. This is followed by a section on a visit by Gina in 2008 to Liping County, Guizhou, specifically to identify the tradition of paper folded Zhen Xian Bao in this region. There is a discussion on the materials and techniques used in their creation – paper making, weaving, indigo dyeing and glazing, woodblock printing, painting, papercuts, appliqué and calligraphy. This is illustrated by details from Zhen Xian Bao shown in more depth in the latter pages of the book. Next there is an interesting section on the remnants of Zhen Xian Bao construction still to be found in 2008 amongst the Dong.

Pages 48-125 of the book focus on the styles of Zhen Xian Bao which have been classified according to minority group, method of construction, decorative style and place and time. This is richly illustrated by photographs of individual Zhen Xian Bao showing complete images, details of aspects of specific interest, context photos if available, shots and information on contents especially those which may have relevance to identification of place, group and time. Those from south west China include ‘Flower Belt’ Yi style from Yunnan with charming paintings clearly identifying the minority group via the clothing, scraps of embroidery and paper cuts. As well as examples collected by the authors in the field or from dealers there are some fine examples from other collectors increasing the breadth of the research. In particular, ‘Star Fold’ style examples from well-known Hong Kong based collector, Chris Hall, extends the geographic and stylistic breadth of examples to northern China. Forum members will recognise my very politically inclined Dong dragon and Pam Najdowski’s Dong example with charming paintings as well as shisha decoration.

The last section of the book looks at some contemporary inspirations made by Ruth Smith and friends illustrating that Zhen Xian Bao can have both an artistic and practical relevance today outside their original culture.

So, what do the authors deduce from their research? They believe that this is the first attempt to record and classify this little known tradition of paper folded Zhen Xian Bao and the picture is still incomplete. However, they postulate that it is reasonable to believe that the tradition started with the Han Chinese. Probably the craft amongst the minority groups was first via those that lived close to the Han Chinese and who also had a strong embroidery tradition for which the Zhen Xian Bao were ideal storage. In some places the craft was practised by men and in others by women. It is not known when the tradition started or how widespread it was in China. The oldest examples seen date to the late Qing Dynasty; are about 100 years old; are made by the Han and come from the north. The oldest minority examples found in Guizhou are from the 1950s although their embroidery traditions are known to go back at least 200 years. The authors hope their book will inspire both an appreciation of the craft of Zhen Xian Bao and stimulate others to continue their research. There is a hint of further research in the foreword by Liu Qi, Vice Curator of the Ethnic Costume Museum of BIFT (Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology) where she indicates a wish to carry on the study with Ruth and Gina partly in memory of her grandmother from Shanxi Province whom she can remember using one.

I am very much enjoying this book which has consolidated, broadened and enhanced my knowledge. I do not deem myself to be a serious collector of Zhen Xian Bao and only have a very small collection of around three – all collected because I could not resist their individual charms! They interest me on several levels: artistic, social history, textile and construction. A significant element in their charm is the underlying mystery relating to their origin particularly at an individual level. Who used it? Who constructed it? Who decorated it? I have been fortunate to see and examine a considerable number thanks to Martin Conlan who has been collecting them for nearly 10 years and who so enjoys sharing them. He has supported Ruth and Gina in their research; a particularly interesting example in his collection appears in the book as ‘Anshun style’. He has also contributed a Foreword to the book. I endorse the authors’ and foreword writers’ wish that the book should stimulate further research and I would like to encourage forum members – current and future – to continue actively contributing to this on-going research by posting information and/or photos of Zhen Xian Bao which cross their path on this forum.

Existing forum threads on Zhen Xian Bao are: ... php?t=1249 and ... php?t=1521

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