In keeping with the importance of women in Nakhi culture, the women continue to wear traditional dress, as seen here. Immediately recognisable by their cobalt blue caps, they wear a white shirt and blue or dark red sleeveless vest fastened with knotted ties at the shoulder. A skirt is worn over their dark blue or black trousers, tied at the waist with a long heavy cotton sash embroidered at both ends with an intricate black and white geometric design, with both ends hanging behind. The most eye-catching feature though, is their extraordinary cape, black above and white below, worn over the back with broad white straps crossing over the front of the body, and embroidered with seven coloured circles.
These circles intrigued me, and I imagined they must have symbolic meaning, but it wasn’t until I read the account of Bruce Chatwin, the legendary travel writer who spent some time in Lijiang in the 1980s, that I understood their significance:
“Apart from the bonnet, the women’s costume consists of a blue bodice, a pleated white apron and a stiff, quilted cape secured with crossbands. Every Nakhi woman carries the cosmos on her back: the upper part of the cape is a band of indigo representing the night sky; the lower, a lobe of creamy silk or sheepskin that stands for the light of day. The two halves are separated by a row of seven disks that symbolize the stars – although the sun and moon, once worn on either shoulder, have now gone out of fashion.”
(from ‘In China, Rock’s Kingdom‘ published in the New York Times, March 16, 1986). Quite poetic as a way of dressing, don’t you think?