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Seed of Culture

Seed of Culture

With dozens of distinct ethnic minority groups, mainland Southeast Asia is a treasure trove of traditional clothing, jewellery, and adornment. These
ethnic groups have helped shape their environment, clearing steep mountain slopes for shifting cultivation or creating complex irrigation schemes for paddy fields, but they have also been deeply influenced by their natural surroundings, from what they eat and how they build their homes, to what they wear. Hemp, silk, cotton, bamboo, and vine are used for weaving and motifs depict animals, insects, plants, and mountains.

 

According to research conducted by Dr. Yukino Ochiai, for centuries, many groups have also used Job’s tears, a seed from a local grass plant, for medicine and beads. Called mak deuay in Lao, the edible species appears in local snacks and desserts. However, it is the hard-shelled wild varieties which appear in traditional clothing. The seed is small with a beautiful ceramic-like sheen, and has a natural hole through the middle so it does not need to be drilled for stringing. Artisans harvest the seed from plants along small streams or roads, and then painstakingly hand-select a uniform shape and colour, which they will usually then stitch to clothing.

The Karen prefer the tube-shaped seeds, which married women use to decorate their blouses. Before marriage, girls wear a long, plain white dress. Once they take a husband, they switch to a dark colored shirt with complex designs in hundreds of thin Job’s tears seeds, and a tube skirt. The Karen of Myanmar tend to prefer both the white and brown coloured beads while the Karen of Thailand select a brilliant white.

The Akha, one of the most recognisable ethnic groups of Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and southern China, are the only group in mainland Southeast Asia to use all four shapes (small and round, large and round, tube, and teardrop) of the bead, which they apply to clothing, headdresses, bags, and leg covers. It is common for Akha families to have a shifting agriculture field where they grow Job’s tears specifically for this purpose.  Entrepreneurial Akha women in northern Laos and Thailand are also known to sell handicrafts such as bracelets and belts, featuring the seed.

Some sub-groups of the Chin ethnic group, of the Chin State in Myanmar, decorate their skirts or headdresses with two shapes of seeds – teardrop and tube. They employ a unique way of attaching these to their ceremonial costumes, preferring long fringes or tassels. While walking or dancing the seeds knock against one another, creating a delicate rattle which is part of their charm.

While once ubiquitous in traditional wear, it is now harder and harder to find Job’s tears today. Plastic beads come in a rainbow of colours, are inexpensive and widely available in markets, and are convenient to string. Villages which have been resettled or are no longer in subsistence farming may not cultivate the plants, and young people often prefer western-style clothing. The demise of this tiny, little-known seed in traditional
costume is just one indicator of the profound changes many of these ethnic communities are undergoing.

Left picture: Falam Chin headdress. ©Yukino Ochiai
Middle picture: Kachin man in Myanmar. ©Yukino Ochiai

Right picture: TAEC Seed Bead Product ©2016 TAEC

 

The Plant Species

Job’s tears (genus: Coix, family: Gramineae) is a grass with long stems and leaves that resemble corn. The four wild species and three wild varieties of Job’s tears are all native to the Southeast Asia region. They are often found on river edges or in swamps in natural habitats, and also grow as a weed in open spaces or along roads in villages. The Coix lacryma-jobi species is most common.

 

Why the name

“Job’s Tears”?

The scientific name of the teardrop common variety of the plant is Coix lacryma-jobi.  In Latin, lacryma means “tears”. This name was assigned by famed botanist Linnaeus in 1753, referring to the biblical story of Job, a devout man whose faith was tested by God through sickness, loss of his family, and poverty.

With dozens of distinct ethnic minority groups, mainland Southeast Asia is a treasure trove of traditional clothing, jewellery, and adornment. These
ethnic groups have helped shape their environment, clearing steep mountain slopes for shifting cultivation or creating complex irrigation schemes for paddy fields, but they have also been deeply influenced by their natural surroundings, from what they eat and how they build their homes, to what they wear. Hemp, silk, cotton, bamboo, and vine are used for weaving and motifs depict animals, insects, plants, and mountains.

According to research conducted by Dr. Yukino Ochiai, for centuries, many groups have also used Job’s tears, a seed from a local grass plant, for medicine and beads. Called mak deuay in Lao, the edible species appears in local snacks and desserts. However, it is the hard-shelled wild varieties which appear in traditional clothing. The seed is small with a beautiful ceramic-like sheen, and has a natural hole through the middle so it does not need to be drilled for stringing. Artisans harvest the seed from plants along small streams or roads, and then painstakingly hand-select a uniform shape and colour, which they will usually then stitch to clothing.

The Karen prefer the tube-shaped seeds, which married women use to decorate their blouses. Before marriage, girls wear a long, plain white dress. Once they take a husband, they switch to a dark colored shirt with complex designs in hundreds of thin Job’s tears seeds, and a tube skirt. The Karen of Myanmar tend to prefer both the white and brown coloured beads while the Karen of Thailand select a brilliant white.

The Akha, one of the most recognisable ethnic groups of Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and southern China, are the only group in mainland Southeast Asia to use all four shapes (small and round, large and round, tube, and teardrop) of the bead, which they apply to clothing, headdresses, bags, and leg covers. It is common for Akha families to have a shifting agriculture field where they grow Job’s tears specifically for this purpose.  Entrepreneurial Akha women in northern Laos and Thailand are also known to sell handicrafts such as bracelets and belts, featuring the seed.

Some sub-groups of the Chin ethnic group, of the Chin State in Myanmar, decorate their skirts or headdresses with two shapes of seeds – teardrop and tube. They employ a unique way of attaching these to their ceremonial costumes, preferring long fringes or tassels. While walking or dancing the seeds knock against one another, creating a delicate rattle which is part of their charm.

While once ubiquitous in traditional wear, it is now harder and harder to find Job’s tears today. Plastic beads come in a rainbow of colours, are inexpensive and widely available in markets, and are convenient to string. Villages which have been resettled or are no longer in subsistence farming may not cultivate the plants, and young people often prefer western-style clothing. The demise of this tiny, little-known seed in traditional
costume is just one indicator of the profound changes many of these ethnic communities are undergoing.

To learn more about Job’s tears and traditional clothing of ethnic minority groups in Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, visit “Seeds of Culture: From Living Plants to Handicrafts” at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Luang Prabang. This special exhibition, guest curated by ethnobotanist Dr. Yukino Ochiai, is on display until September 2018. www.taeclaos.org.

 

Story and Photos

by Tara Gujadhur &

DR. Yukino Ochiai

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