China Poblana

Poblanas (women of Puebla), in a 19th century vignette. To the left appears a chinaco.

China poblana (or, Chinese Pueblan) is a term that refers to two elements of the culture of Mexico that have been related by name since the end of the 19th century, although the elements they incorporate are much older. In its most commonly and widely used sense today, it is the name of what is considered the traditional style of dress of women in the Mexican Republic, although in reality it only belonged to some urban zones in the middle and southeast of the country, before its disappearance in the second half of the 19th century.

In a narrower sense, it is the nickname of Mirra, a slave, belonging to a noble family from India brought to Mexico through the Spanish East Indies, who has been credited since the Porfiriato with creating the china dress. This hypothesis, however, has been placed in doubt by many authors. After converting to Catholicism in Cochin —an Indian city where she was kidnapped by Portuguese pirates—, Mirra was given the Christian name Catarina de San Juan, the name she was known as in Angelópolis where she worked as a slave, got married, and eventually became a nun. Upon her death, Catarina de San Juan was buried in the sacristy of the Templo de la Compañía de Jesús in Puebla, in what is popularly known as Tumba de la China Poblana or Tomb of the Chinese Pueblan. (Note that in Hispanic cultures it is common to use the term chino to refer to all persons of Asian descent, regardless of actual ethnicity.)


Legend of the China Poblana

Catarina de San Juan, in a 17th century woodcut

According to the legend, at the request of Diego Carrillo de Mendoza y Pimentel, Marquis of Gélves and Viceroy of New Spain, A young Indian woman was brought from the Philippines by merchant ship to be the viceroy's personal servant. This girl, named Mirra, was kidnapped by Portuguese pirates and taken to Cochin (modern-day Kochi), in the south of India. There, she escaped her kidnappers and took refuge in a Jesuit mission, where she was baptized with the name Catarina de San Juan. Mirra was again kidnapped by the same pirates that had taken her from her birth parents, and in Manila they delivered her to the merchant who later took her to New Spain. But once they disembarked in the port of Acapulco, instead of delivering her to the Marquis, the merchant sold her as a slave to the Pueblan man Miguel de Sosa for ten times the price that the viceroy had promised for her.

Catarina de San Juan, or Mirra (or Mira/Meera), followed the style of dress of her birth country, India, completely wrapped in a sari that covered her whole body. It is possible that this mode of dress gave rise to the china dress. A few years after her arrival in Mexico, Miguel de Sosa died, providing in his will for the manumission of his slave. She was taken in by a convent, where it is said she began to have visions of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. Catarina de San Juan died 5 January 1688 at the age of 82 years. In Puebla de los Ángeles she was venerated as a saint until 1691, when the Holy Inquisition prohibited open devotion to her. Today, the Templo de la Compañía, in Puebla, is known as La Tumba de la China Poblana because in its sacristy lie the remains of Catarina de San Juan.[1]

Fashion design of the china dress

¡Plaza!, que allá va la nata y la espuma de la gente de bronce, la perla de los barrios, el alma de los fandangos, la gloria y ambición de la gente de "sarape y montecristo", la que me subleva y me alarma, y me descoyunta y me... (The plaza!—filled with the cream and the dregs of the bronzed people, the pearl of the neighborhoods, the soul of the fandangos, the glory and ambition of the people of "sarape and montecristo", that which stirs and alarms me, and disjoints me, and...)

La china. José María Rivera.[2]

"La china" woman, in a lithography that accompanied the heading of the same name in the book Los mexicanos pintados por sí mismos about the milieu of Mexican culture.

The fashion design of the china poblana dress is attributed to Catarina de San Juan, although it certainly incorporates elements from the diverse cultures that were mixed in New Spain during three centuries of Spanish rule.

According to descriptions written in the 19th century, the era in which the dress was very popular in various cities in the middle and southeast of Mexico, china outfit is made up of the following garments:

  • A white blouse, with fringing and embroiderywork of silk and beads, in geometric and floral designs in bright colors. The blouse was sufficiently low-cut to allow part of the neck and the bosom to be seen,[3] which scandalized to no end the "proper" women of nineteenth century Mexican society.
  • A skirt called castor (or, "beaver"), named after the material it was made from. According to some historians, castor was used by well-heeled ladies of the household to make the underskirts of their indigenous maids.[4] The castor skirt was decorated with sequins and camarones (literally, shrimp) that formed geometric and floral shapes.[5] Folkloric dance groups have revived a version that has the coat of arms of Mexico embroidered with sequins, beads, and bugles (a type of bead).
  • A white slip with enchilada stitching,[6] that is to say with the lower hem criss-crossed with zig-zagged lacework. The slip of a china poblana would peek out under the castor skirt, and served to keep the form of a woman attired in the china dress from showing in silhouette.
  • A loop that held up the castor and the slip to the waist of the woman who wore it. The loop may or may not have been adorned with emroidery, or woven in brocade-style.
  • A shawl, sometimes made fine with silk, or in most cases with bobbles. The shawl is a very common garment in Mexico, even today. Women use it to cover themselves from the cold, but it was also used to carry babies or any other thing that was difficult to carry barehanded due to size and weight. The bobble shawl, which was most commonly used in china dresses, was woven with threads of blue and white color, and originated in the Otomí town of Santa María del Río (San Luis Potosí).[7]
  • In some instances, the china was accompanied with a scarf or kerchief of silk to hide any cleavage that might peek out of the blouse. Of these scarves, José María Rivera wrote that "these regularly come home on Sunday only to return to the pawn shop on Monday or Tuesday".[8]
  • As footwear, 19th century author Manuel Payno pointed out that despite her financial lackings, a china-dress woman would use satin shoes embroidered with silk thread.[9] This type of foowear appears in some nineteenth century Mexican texts as an indicator that the wearer was a "merry woman".[10] Furthermore, the china wearer completed the outfit with beads and jewels that adorned her ears, her cleavage, and her hands.[11]

Cultural Representations of la china

—Eso sí que no; yo soy la tierra que todos pisan, pero no sé hacer capirotadas. (It is so that it is not so; I am the ground that everyone walks on, but I don't know how to make bread pudding.)

La china. José María Rivera.

A Mexican fandango from the 19th century. In the image a china woman can be seen dancing with her characteristic fine attire, to the sound of a harp.

A stereotype of a person is loaded with strong insinuations that imply that a person that belongs to a certain class should act a certain way. The "typical" china woman is no exception. As some authors have observed about Mexican women in general,[12] in Mexican culture "there is no place for a woman that is not a saint or a prostitute."[13] But in the case of the china women, it is necessary to point out that their reputation fluxed between positive and negative extremes, and in some cases, the very incarnation of a good woman or an indecent woman, depending on the beholder.

The one thing that the majority of nineteenth century descriptions of these women have in common is that they were very lovely women, whose dresses were too risque for the times. The loveliness of these women was seen by the males of their time as a result of their brown complexion, their "plump" but not "fat" body and face, and mostly, their difference from women of higher social strata such as the "society women" or the "coquettes", namely their lack of artifices to enhance their beauty. Author Rivera noted that if a china woman would have seen a corset, she would have thought it a torture device such as used on Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins; and that her face was not some sort of "cake frosting", an allusion to the "proper" women whose faces would have to be washed to see if the colors run:

[...] no conoce el corsé; si lo viera, desde luego pensaría que semejante aparato fue uno de los intrumentos que sirvieron para el martirio de Santa Úrsula y sus once mil compañeras [...] y está tan a oscuras en eso de cascarillas, colorete y vinagres radicales, que si se hallara tales chucherías entre sus limpios peines y adornadas escobetas, creería sin duda que aquello era para pintar las ollas del tinajero, pues, como dijo el otro, el novio de la china no tiene necesidad de lavar antes a la novia, como a las indianas, para ver si se destiñe, prueba a que deberían estar sujetas algunas hermosuras del buen tono. (...she knows not the corset; if she saw it, right off she would think that it such a device was one of the instruments that served to martyr Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand handmaidens...And she is so much in the dark in matters of facial masks (literally, husks), rouge, and radical vinegars, that if she encountered such trinkets among her clean combs and adorned hairbrushes, without a doubt she would believe they were for painting pots from the potterymaker, since, as someone else has said, the boyfriend of the china woman has no need to wash his girlfriend beforehand, like Indian women, to see if her colors run, a test that some "proper" beautiful women should have to go through.)

—Rivera, José María, Ibid., p. 32.

In that sense, the wardrobe of the china woman was considered too provocative. Contemporary Mexican journalists and foreigners who knew these women in the first half of the nineteenth century call attention to the way in which the fashion of peasant women showed off their feminine forms, or were an appropriate feature of all the graces that were attributed to these women. A verbal portrait was made of them as excellent dancers of jarabe music popular in that era—like El Atole, El Agualulco, El Palomo and others that form part of the folkloric jarabes of the twentieth century—, also as models of cleanliness and order; of fidelity to "their man" although also seen as very liberal sexually.

Not that much is known about the China Poblana mostly because many know it but there is no actual evidence saying that she did in fact exist. And there for many people argue that because if this it might just be a legend. One thing to keep in mind is that no one had writing utensils and no television and therefore to pass the time they told stories. This is also known as word of mouth and this might just have been one of those stories where it was passed down from generation to generation.


Origin of the fashion design of la china

As mentioned in the introduction of this article, the Pueblan origin of the china poblana outfit has been put in doubt on occasion. The correlation between the china—as a popular figure— and the outfit worn by the historic China Poblana—the alluded-to Catarina de San Juan— is a product of the evolution of Mexican culture during the first decades of the twentieth century. In fact, las chinas became a well defined meme in the 19th century, a little more than a century after the death of Catarina de San Juan. Writer Gauvin Bailey points out:

The china poblana of popular imagination—of shiny embroidered blouse and shawl— is a product of the nineteenth century. Symbol of Mexican femininity, she is linked to Spanish prototypes such as the maja, immortalized in paintings by Murillo y Goya[14]


  1. ^ De la Maza, Francisco (1990): Catarina de San Juan. Princesa de la India y visionaria de Puebla. México, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.
  2. ^ Rivera, José María (1997 [1855]): "La china". En Frías y Soto, Hilarión et al.: Los mexicanos pintados por sí mismos. Edited by Rosa Beltrán. Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, México, p. 31.
  3. ^ Rivera, José María, ibid., p. 36.
  4. ^ "El jarabe tapatío", from the website of the Mexican Folkloric Dance Company of Chicago, Retrieved on January 10, 2007.
  5. ^ "La china poblana", in México Desconocido. Retrieved on January 10, 2007.
  6. ^ Rivera, José María, ibid., p. 36
  7. ^ "Los rebozos de Santa María del Río", in México Desconocido, Retrieved on January 10, 2007.
  8. ^ Rivera, José María, ibid., p. 36.
  9. ^ Payno, Manuel (1997 [1843]): "El coloquio. El lépero. La china.", In: Monsiváis, Carlos (Editor): A ustedes les consta. Antología de la crónica en México. Era, México, p. 85
  10. ^ Cfr. De Cuéllar, José Tomás (1996): Baile y cochino. Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, México, p. 28
  11. ^ Vázquez Mantecón, María del Carmen (2000): "La china mexicana, mejor conocida como china poblana". In: Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, issue 77, p. 128.
  12. ^ Cfr. Bartra, Roger (1996): La jaula de la melancolía, Grijalbo, México, and Paz, Octavio (2003): The Labyrinth of Solitude, Cátedra, Barcelona
  13. ^ Paz, Octavio, ibid., Chapter IV.
  14. ^ Bailey, Gauvin A. (1997): "A Mughal Princess in Baroque New Spain. Catarina de San Juan (1606-1688), the china poblana". In: Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, núm. 71, pp. 38-39.

See also

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