The Honolulu Academy of Arts
The Christensen Fund Collection comprises some 1500 masterpieces from 7 different cultures in Southeast and East Asia. This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to learn about the intimate and surprisingly sophisticated world of children's costumes in the Far East.
Children's costumes cultivated in the traditional societies of China and Japan are extraordinary for their fine quality and deep symbolic meanings. While these garments have a practical function, they vividly symbolize the cultural heritage, including the religions and family traditions, of the community.
In China and Japan in the early part of the 20th century, infant mortality was quite high, with many children not living to see their first birthdays. In these cultures, prosperity was believed to come from a long bloodline and from having many children. Because the child mortality rate was so high, lavish celebrations and rituals took place from birth to the time the child reached adulthood to assure the child's good fortune and longevity.
These elaborate rituals often involved textiles and reflected the indigenous concept of life and death that was intimately connected to vulnerable children. In traditional Japan, a newborn infant was considered unstable and impure. The child was purposely wrapped in rags or swaddling clothes made from the mother's old clothing. If the baby was born into an ill-fortuned family that had suffered many deaths, it might be left temporarily on the doorstep of a wealthy or healthy family in hopes of changing this bad luck. On the seventh day, the swaddling clothes were discarded for a ceremonial kimono presented by its maternal grandmother. The child would be given a name that ensured his or her entry into the world.
Similar rituals were conducted in China such as the presentation of the Hundred Families Coat, during the child's first month. This coat was made from silk fragments from many different families and symbolized the combined good fortune of one hundred families. This custom was also practiced in Japan where the robe was called the Hundred Virtue Kimono. In China on a child's first birthday, a zhuazhu ceremony involved dressing the child in a set of auspicious garments and placing him or her in the midst of several articles. The choice of a specific article the child reached for first, was thought to indicate the child's future profession and good fortune. If a child reached for a brush, he was thought to be destined to become a scholar. Thereafter, on every possible occasion, parents and families in China and Japan made special efforts to ensure good luck for their children.
Parents' love for and pride in their children is most visible in the wonderful clothing they provided on festive and ceremonial occasions. Expensive materials and excellent craftsmanship are hallmarks of these garments which often incorporated symbolic designs and decorations. One fine example included in the display features an indigo-dyed ceremonial kimono for a male infant with a special stitched adornment at its back. Known as a semamori (back protector), this talismatic decoration is thought to have magical power to ward off evil spirits.
The exhibition features more than 120 examples selected from the Christensen Fund Collection housed at the Academy, and from the Academy's own textile collection. These exceptional children's textiles from East Asia date from the mid 19th to mid-20th centuries and introduce a genre rarely brought into the museum limelight. The display also includes a number of adult costumes for a comprehensive comparison. Family Ties is roughly organized by geographical regions and costume types. The China section includes 80 pieces and is divided into two major groups: central urban and rural ethnic. The first group highlights Manchu courtiers' robes and Han Chinese festive garments. Among the selected objects are a Manchu emperor's dragon robe, a elite Manchu boy's ceremonial robe, luscious wedding costumes for a bride and groom, and colorful children's celebratory costumes.
The second section features festive costumes created between 1900s and 1960s by the Miao people, one of the country's oldest ethnic groups. Hats, pinafores, bibs, collars, and aprons decorated with lively good luck animals and symbolic motifs are among the treasures on display.