255th Meeting – Tuesday, December 14th 2004

Textiles as a Material Lexicon of Tributary Relations in the Lao-Tai world
A talk and presentation by Patricia Cheesman

Present: Allan Adasiak, Louise Ahl, Hans & Saengdow Bänziger, Paul Barber-Riley, Mark Bleadon, Bonnie Brereton, Kay Calavon, Guy Cardinal, Nina Cassils, Lamorna Cheesman, Peter Cuasay, Bill Dovhey, Olivier Evrard, Louis Gabaude, Martine Gauthier, Oliver Hargreave, Reinhard Hohler, Ken Kampe, Jan Kilborn, Martyn King, Hugh Leong, Marjorie Muecke, Bannarak Nakbunlung, Supaporn Nakbunlung, Jeanette Pembroke, Francois Perez, Aileen Roantree, Maria A. Salas, Armin & Anne Schoch, Timmi Tillmann, Lisa Tobin, Celeste Tolibas-Holland, Victoria Vorreiter. An audience of 35.

Background - Patricia Cheesman has done in-depth field research in the Laos PDR and Thailand over the past 30 years. She published numerous books and articles on Lao and Tai textiles and has been lecturing at Chiang Mai University in the Thai Art Department since 1984. Originally trained in England in ceramics, Patricia worked for the UNDP/ILO, Laos, between 1973-1981 on ceramics projects, and 1981-1984 lectured at Sydney and NSW Universities, Australia. She worked for the Crafts Board of Australia on weaving projects for Lao refugees and contributed to numerous traveling exhibitions including "Indigo textiles - Laos, Japan, Nigeria" and "Lanna Textiles - Yuan, Lue, Lao". She is textiles consultant to the Thai Ministry of Education, Bank of Thailand collection and the Lao Women's Union. Her most recent book "Lao-Tai Textiles: The Textiles of Xam Nuea and Muang Phuan" was published in October 2004. Affiliation and Specialization: Chiang Mai University. Art History, Ethnography and Anthropology.

The full text of the talk:


In-depth research on Lao-Tai textiles in the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic, Thailand and Vietnam over the past thirty years shows a transformation of practices of social production of textiles that are best classified not by ethnicity but by geographical provenance. Scholars have been struggling with identification of the extremely complex variety of textiles of the Lao-Tai peoples, with an emphasis on ethnicity and anthropological classification. This is perhaps due to the lack of empirical research from the field and what Leach calls ‘an academic fiction…that in a normal ethnographic situation one ordinarily finds distinct tribes distributed about the map in an orderly fashion with clear-cut boundaries between them’ (Leach, 1964 p.290). The findings of this research are that textiles of several different Lao-Tai ethnic groups from shared geographic locations share textile and clothing styles, the extent of which is related to historical and social circumstances and the passage of time. The indigenous Lao-Tai administrative system known as muang or baan-muang is the most accurate classification method to incorporate historical overlapping and describes the tributary relations between political centres of the Lao-Tai peoples.

An important finding of this author’s research is that Lao-Tai peoples used textiles and clothing to express their desire to belong to certain communities, which pledged allegiance to their chiefs. Clothing styles were outward expressions of allegiance to the chief, who in turn would wear appropriate clothing to show allegiance to his overlords. When people were relocated to different areas under a new chief, they changed their clothing and textiles accordingly. This adaptation was in some cases a gradual process and in others very sudden, and can be studied in both displaced groups and intermarriage. While clothing styles changed, in all or some part, to the style of the new location for various reasons, textiles made for household use generally maintained their original styles despite migrations and deportations. This may have been because they were not publicly seen, whereas clothing was. Discontinuation of home-produced household textiles usually indicates the availability of commercial household goods. The case of the Tai Khang, who fled their homelands in Muang Phuan to Xam Nuea to escape being enslaved by the Siamese in the 18th and 19th centuries, is an exception where both the clothing and household styles of Xam Nuea were adopted, probably due to the suddenness of their move and their desire to avoid detection.

If in the past, the clothing and textiles of communities were indicators of allegiance to certain muang without ethnic restriction, perhaps textiles could create the supposed reality of the extent of an indigenous muang?

At the turn of the nineteenth century the French established Indochina and the current political borders of Vietnam and the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic. Prior to this period there was no concept here of nation or geography as we know it today and therefore I chose to use the names of historical muang for the geographical spaces in the Lao-Tai world to describe the textiles from the period of this study, which is prior to the Second World War.

The 14th century saw the establishment of a number of large and politically powerful Lao-Tai muang in what are today areas of the Lao P.D.R, northwest Vietnam, southern China, northern Myanmar and Thailand. From the 14th to the 19th centuries Sipsong Tjao Tai (Twelve Tai Chiefs) administered a huge population from many tributary muang including some in southern China, northwestern Vietnam and northeastern Lao P.D.R. The kingdom of Lan Xang was founded in the 14th century by the Lao and held sway in the Mekong River basin while the Siamese established the kingdoms of Sukhothai in the 13th century and Ayutthaya in the 14th century in the Chaophraya River region. A small kingdom called Muang Phuan controlled the trade route between the Lan Xang capital of Louang Phabang and the kingdom of Hué in Vietnam. The Siamese claimed suzerainty over Lan Xang, which in turn claimed suzerainty over Sipsong Tjao Tai and Muang Phuan, placing the latter two muang theoretically under the indirect jurisdiction of the Siamese. At the same time, the Vietnamese received tributes from Sipsong Tjao Tai and Muang Phuan, symbolising their suzerainty over those peoples. Muang Phuan also paid tribute to the kings of Lan Xang. These complex relationships were far from stable and the political power of a chief or king was measured against the size of the population he controlled. For centuries the Siamese physically relocated thousands of peoples from Muang Phuan and the east side of the Mekong to the west side and the Chaophraya valley to boost their populations and create a no-man’s land in the regions between them and the Vietnamese.

The uniformity of data gathered in each region has enabled this author to chart the textiles of these ancient muang in a fairly logical system, with the conclusion that the people in each tributary muang originally used some, if not all the types of textiles in the style of their governing muang for the basic needs of life and for the embellishing of their cultural beliefs, regardless of ethnicity. It has been possible to identify the artistic style of the textiles and dress codes of several muang and the ethnic groups in each of these muang that follow these codes. It is the politico-geographical muang provenance information that sheds light on existing textiles and alternatively, existing textile styles can be used to map emigrational histories (Naenna, 1998).

Most Lao-Tai self-appointed names are toponyms (names which derive from the topographical features of the area where people live) and relate directly to the muang of origin, such as the Tai Nuea from Muang Xam Nuea who were at one time the dominant group in that muang. The Tai Daeng from M. Daeng migrated into Muang Xam Nuea, bringing with them textile styles from M. Daeng. When the French replaced the Tai Nuea administration in Muang Xam Nuea with Tai Daeng chiefs for religious purposes, the textile styles of M. Daeng suddenly became the dominant style in Xam Nuea. However, the Xam Nuea textile style cannot be identified as belonging only to the Tai Nuea or the Tai Daeng, as both these groups display the same style in their textiles, as do those of the Tai Moei and Tai Khang in the same region. Instead the classification as Xam Nuea style textiles with their subsequent sub-styles is more accurate and describes an art form produced in a geographical location with its own ethnographic histories. The Tai Nuea who moved to the Mekong basin region, took on the Lan Xang textile style but maintained a few elements of their origins that can be identified in their textiles as the Xam Nuea style.

Muang Xam Nuea was in the path of some of the earliest migrations of Lao-Tai peoples into Laos and Thailand from Vietnam, which began over a thousand years ago (Cam, 1998 p. 20). For this reason, the textiles of Xam Nuea not only hold many proto-types for textiles further south and west which have evolved variously but also display styles that have since been discarded by the Thái (the Vietnamese rendering of the word) in the regions of Vietnam from whence the people of Xam Nuea came. Those areas in Vietnam became the principal muang of Sipsong Tjao Tai, incorporating Muang Xam Nuea as a tributary muang (Chamberlain, 1992 p.20). Most of the original textiles in the Sipsong Tjao Tai style from northwestern Vietnam and southern China have been discontinued but my findings on allegiance and muang factors discussed above based on the homogenous quality of textiles from certain regions, concludes that the peoples of Sipsong Tjao Tai at one time wove and wore textiles that were essentially similar in style and at the same time displayed subtle differences in each of the tributary muang. The method of dress for women in the Sipsong Tjao Tai region was called sin luea suea bor por (long skirts and short blouses) as shown in the dress of a Tai Dam noble woman collected by the Musée d l’Homme in 1931 (Hemmet, 1995 p.49) and still existing textiles and clothing in Houa Phan province (the Xam Nuea region), the provinces of Lai Chau, Son La, Hoa Binh, Thanh Hoa and Nghe An in Vietnam that have maintained many of their original styles. These latter areas and their historical muang can be seen as sub-styles that can shed light on the original Sipsong Tjao Tai style. Differences, such as colour preferences and waistbands, can be used to classify the sub-styles of the Sipsong Tjao Tai style, one of which was the Xam Nuea style that in turn had several sub-styles. 

The Lan Xang Kingdom, established in the 14th century, administered populations in the Mekong River basin of present-day Laos and northeast Thailand and included Muang Phuan under its jurisdiction. As a result, Lan Xang textile styles greatly influenced some of the textiles of Muang Phuan and in turn some Muang Phuan textiles were adopted by the Lan Xang court. Muang Phuan lay directly on the trade route between the coast of Vietnam and Louang Phabang, and was rich in natural resources, manpower and arable land. These factors made it a target, resulting in complete evacuation or enslavement of the population by stronger Lao-Tai muang and foreign nation-states at different times in history. During the 18th and 19th centuries the Siamese carried out a depopulation policy in Muang Phuan leading to the relocation of thousands of people from Muang Phuan, including the Tai Khang, to present day Thailand, while the rest fled in every direction, but mostly east to Nghe An province, Vietnam.

The sojourn of Phuan peoples in Nhge An had a noticeable effect on the textiles of both regions. Muang Phuan style shoulder cloths are seen in Nghe An just as the sin bork tube skirt of the Nghe An style is woven in Muang Phuan. In the 20th century Muang Phuan received an unprecedented concentration of bombing attacks by the U.S. military in the Second Indochina War. The people once again fled their homelands or were evacuated, but their love for independence and identity brought them back to rebuild their past in their homelands of Muang Phuan, today known as Xiang Khoang province. As a result of their tragic history, traditional Muang Phuan style textiles are difficult to locate and the style and sub-styles of Muang Phuan are the most problematic to study. Nevertheless, it has been possible to outline the main points of identification for Muang Phuan style textiles and several sub-styles relating to tributary muang within Muang Phuan.

The Nam Noen region is another melting pot of styles, where numerous Lao-Tai groups from both Nghe An and Muang Phuan have settled since the Second Indochina War. The weavers have adjusted their textiles to the style of the Nam Noen region. The dominant group are the Tai Moei who share the area with Tai Khang, Phuan, Tai Mat and others.

The muang classification system for textile styles is most useful for the identification of textiles that have been removed from their original locations and show confusing stylistic elements. The Tai Khang are interesting for this kind of comparative study, having fled or been removed from their home in M. Khang, Muang Phuan, into various regions of Lao P.D.R., Vietnam and Thailand. On establishing their new homes they adapted their textiles in different ways. Those that relocated to M. Xam Tai, a tributary muang of Xam Nuea, adopted all the textiles types and structures of the Xam Tai style but used the colours of M. Phuan style textiles. Tai Khang peoples that settled in the Nam Noen region adopted the Nam Noen style of textiles and clothing, and Tai Khang peoples that were relocated in Siam established communities that maintained much of the original M. Khang style but incorporated some aspects of the Lanna style. This was a result of their relocation in the north of Thailand, where they incorporated the Lanna style discontinuous supplementary weft hem piece known as tiin tjok (with a plain red section at the lower selvage) in their tube skirts. Most researchers identify the latter as ‘Tai Khrang’ textiles (Thai language includes an ‘r’ where Lao language does not) even though they are very different to the textiles of the Tai Khang peoples in Xam Nuea, Xam Tai, Nam Noen or Muang Phuan. These textiles would be more accurately classified by the name of the particular village of provenance in Thailand, which would incorporate the combined stylistic elements in their textiles.

A similar example can be given for textiles from M. Hun, Udomxay province, Lao P.D.R. Here a group of textiles of extraordinary beauty was produced that have been identified as Tai Lue textiles by some researchers, but many elements in the textiles are not typical of Tai Lue textiles in other regions. More detailed research shows elements of the Muang Phuan style in these textiles and, in fact, they were woven by Phuan peoples who had relocated in M. Hun, a region controlled by Tai Lue chiefs. The textiles would be more accurately classified as M. Hun style, which would incorporate the combination of the Sipsong Panna style (the homeland of the Tai Lue) and the Muang Phuan style.


With the increased complexity of ethnic integration and stylistic adaptation of Lao-Tai textiles, a new method of classification is necessary to incorporate more recent stylistic changes relating to their geographic location than the existing classification system based on ethnicity. This research suggests the identification of textiles by muang styles and provenance, and only secondarily by ethnicity. My most recent publication Lao-Tai textiles: The texitles of Muang Xam Nuea and Muang Phuan provides a stylistic record of textiles from those regions for this purpose. With this system, textiles can be analysed for evidence of migrations, regional overlapping, belief systems, and influences of outside political powers. The elements in a textile that give us information for identification purposes are the local names, complete structures, colour preferences, raw materials, techniques, weaving densities and favourite motifs. Knowledge of Lao-Tai culture and the indigenous muang system is necessary to understand the original function and status of the textiles while the history and geography of the region is necessary to map centres of political power and the migration patterns of the Lao-Tai groups in and out of different muang targeted. Finally, knowledge of weaving techniques is essential for analysing the textiles.

The evolution of Lao-Tai textiles was not a result of ethnicity but a result of economic and socio-political interests that related directly to their geographical locations. Historically all the Lao-Tai groups shared a common origin and culture as well as most weaving techniques, raw materials for weaving and textiles motifs, but as they migrated further away from their original communities and established new ones, they prioritised certain elements in their textiles and clothing that became particular to each muang. The extraordinary homogeneous quality of the textiles from certain regions correlating with the locations of ancient Lao-Tai muang has been the focus point of this research and the basis of my hypothesis that textiles can be studied as a material lexicon of tributary relations in the Lao-Tai world.


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This most informative and delightfully entertaining talk, illuminated with the presentation of many historical images, was followed by an equally well-informed and enlightening question an answer session - which included a question concerning ethnic underwear - after which the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Patricia in more informal conversation over intoxicating beverages and snacks.