Children's hats from China: Delight, with a purpose to top it all off

January 15, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The tiger, not the lion, is the king of beasts in China, and like so many other creatures it has great symbolic meaning there. It stands for strength and courage, and haas been placed outside tombs and houses to keep evil spirits away.

So when Chinese children, and especially males, are born their mothers and grandmothers make them hats in the form of tigers, complete with whiskers and bulgy eyes with bushy eyebrows and big round ears in which, often, perch tiny representations that also have symbolic meanings. Rabbits mean longevity, mice mean industry, melons mean fertility and children mean the tiger can be protective as well as fierce.

Tigers are not the only forms these hats take, and there are other forms of clothing such as shoes and collars. But tiger hats are the most winning of the objects in the Baltimore Museum of Art's "Guardian Spirits: Magical Clothing for China's Children," itself a magical show that comes to us courtesy of Alice Gottesman, an American now living in Hong Kong but with family ties to Baltimore.

She assembled an exhibition of almost 100 children's hats and other pieces of clothing from four collections, including her own, and BMA curators Anita Jones (textiles) and Frances Klapthor (Asian art) have written a 19-page text that explains in depth the meanings of these delightful objects.

Delightful may be the wrong word, for if they look light-hearted to us they were made for a completely serious purpose: to protect children from evil and help assure life's blessings.

The meanings can be complex, and forms and imagery change from region to region. Tiger hats, we learn, probably originated in Hebei province. In addition to creatures in the ears, they may be adorned elsewhere with motifs such as cabbages (health) or grasshoppers (wealth).

Hats from Shaanxi province are apt to be more fantastic, taking the shapes of monsters or of the qilin, a mythical animal. Other decorations include the 12 creatures of the Chinese zodiac, which Westerners are familiar with from Chinese New Year celebrations that proclaim the year of the rat, ox, tiger, hare, etc.

Some elaborate hats are decorated with ornaments such as metal representations of Shou Lao, god of longevity, and the Eight Immortals, and perhaps topped with tiny pagoda finials. And on some of the collars shown, the combination of symbols adds up to an elaborate blessing. Orange blossoms and artemisia leaves together mean "May you be blessed with loving sons who are scholars or officials."

Some may not want to go as deeply into the symbolism of these articles as the curators do, but few if any (including children) will be able to resist their charm.

"Guardian Spirits: Magical Clothing for China's Children"

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near North Charles and 31st streets.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 27.

Admission: Adults $5; seniors and students $3.50; ages 4 to 18 $1.50.

% Call: (410) 396-7100.

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