Updated: 2011-02-15 13:33
A “pouch,” or “hebao” in Chinese, is a kind of adornment of traditional Chinese clothing, used for carrying odds and ends by the ancient Chinese, something like today’s purse. They are usually made into various beautiful shapes, such as rotund, oblong, peach, ruyi and guava, and different areas have their distinctive forms.
The pouch was developed from the “nangbao,” a kind of small bag kept for containing one’s money, handkerchief and other little things, because there were no pockets on ancient dresses. The earliest nangbao could be carried by hand or by back. Due to the inconvenience of carrying it, later people improved on it by fastening it to the belt. The most common material for making the nangbao was leather.
The history of wearing a pouch dates back to the Pre-Qin dynasties or much earlier. As of today, the earliest pouch unearthed in China is one made during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC) and the Warring States (475-221BC). Actually, the appellation of “hebao” appeared after the Song Dynasty (960-1279), which refers to a small bag for containing carry-on valuables, such as one’s money and personal seal. This custom continued on through the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the early Republic of China (1912-1949), and then vanished in the cities due to the reform of clothing, which brought pockets into common use. Fortunately, it is still popular in some rural areas and ethnic minority areas, so that the folk handcraft, carrying abundant and profound cultural meaning, can be passed down to modern times.
A pouch is composed of two sides, the interior and the exterior. The exterior is often embroidered with posh patterns, while the mouth is threaded with a silk string that can be tightened and loosened. The pouch boasts a great variety of designs and patterns. There were different patterns for different uses, but praying for luck was the most common subject. Butterflies and flowers represent a wish for love and marriage, golden melons and children denote longevity and more children, as do images of a kylin, a mythical Chinese chimerical creature, carrying a son. Others express good wishes through propitious animals and plants, such as bats and lotus flowers. Different subjects convey different emotions.
Of all the different kinds of folk pouches, perfume pouches (commonly called Xiangbao, Xiangnang, Xiangdai) account for a considerable proportion. It was originally a tradition to carry one during the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, for it was filled with fragrant herbs and embroidered with a pattern of the five venomous animals (scorpion, snake, centipede, gecko and toad), which was meant to ward off evil spirits and wickedness and bring their carriers wealth and auspiciousness forever with its unique smell.
The custom of wearing a perfume pouch has been practiced since ancient times. It is said that people in ancient times used to carry a medicine bag to drive out poisonous insects when they went hunting. By the Qing Dynasty, perfume pouches were carried by people not only on the Dragon Boat Festival, but every day, because the Manchus had long held the custom. According to the Qing custom, emperors and empresses were required to carry perfume pouches on them all year round, and at the end of every year, or on important festivals, the emperor would award each of the princes and ministers with a perfume pouch to show his favor for them.
To this day, the perfume pouch is a great traditional gift or token of fortune, and it comes in a variety of stylish and beautiful designs.
Manchu Pouch: Fadu
For thousands years, a charming love song called “embroidery pouch” was widespread in the northern China, which tells of a young wife who, in the embroidery of a pouch she makes for her husband, expresses her love for her husband and sadness at being separated from him.
Many ethnic groups have the custom of wearing a pouch. Among these ethnic groups, the Manchu people wear pouches as part of their traditional costume, and the Manchu pouch, called “fadu” in Manchu, is quite unique with ethnic flavor.
The forefathers of the Manchu people lived a hunting life, hunting through thickly forested mountains and dealing with birds and beasts, so they wore a kind of bag made of hide at the waist, which was secured on the belt for carrying food. Later, they went outside the mountains and began an agricultural life, so the bag developed into a small and delicate accouterment, which could only contain sweetmeats. Women used small pieces of silk and satin to sew the bag and embroider it with flower and bird patterns. This is the origin of the Manchu pouch. Also, it is used for carrying perfume and tobacco.
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