Friday, March 24, 2017

Let These Bowls You Over

What is this?

If I had the hubris of a post-Modern artist, I could claim it as a sculpture that weds two pieces of conventional artisanal functionality from two disparate cultures.

But I'm not an artist, and these are merely two bowls, with one set upside-down atop another.  On the top is an upside-down Paul Revere pewter bowl reproduction by the Stieff Company of Baltimore, Maryland.  And below it is a Hmong ceremonial pedestal bowl.

Both belong to my Mom, and have been about her house for years.  The Revere bowl was a wedding present from a wealthy family in Nyack, New York, who used to employ Mom as a nanny during her college years.  The Hmong bowl was a gift from the leaders of a Hmong refugee congregation, given to each elder at the church my family used to attend here in Arlington, Texas, back around 1980.

It is believed that the Hmong culture can be traced as far back as 2,000 BC in China, although it long ago was forced southward, into Laos, Burma, Vietnam, and Thailand.  A number of Hmong people were part of the Laotian resistance who assisted the United States military during the bitter war in Vietnam, and were subject to persecution after Hanoi fell to the Communists, after the United States pulled out of the conflict.  Thousands of Hmong (spelled the same whether singular or plural) and Laotians were granted emergency visas to flee Vietnam for America, and they resettled in Minnesota and Wisconsin (where the winters were a shock in every way), California, and even here in Arlington, which has one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese immigrants in the country.

Hmong from Laos who had been converted to Christianity back in their native country wanted a place here in Arlington where they could worship in their language, and our small church was a member of the same denomination that had missionaries who had ministered to them back in Laos.  The elder board at our church welcomed the Hmong with open arms, not just as allies in war, but also brothers and sisters in faith, and to show their appreciation, the Hmong gave each of the elders one of these intricately-detailed ceremonial cups as a gesture of gratitude.

I'm not sure what material these Hmong cups are made of, but it's almost certainly tin, or perhaps aluminum.  They're decorated by hand with etchings and impressions hammered into the soft metal with special tools.  The overall design is of lotus leaves, which while usually a Buddhist symbol of divinity, are also widely understood in Thai and Laotian cultures to represent purity.

When it comes to the Revere bowl, on the other hand, there's a lot less divinity involved, although its purity may rest in the eye of the beholder.  Paul Revere, of course, was that celebrated American patriot who was a silversmith by trade.  Back in 1768, when those British tea taxes were roiling the Colonies, Revere was commissioned by a drinking society in Massachusetts to craft a rum punch bowl in honor of opponents to the British tea tax.  And for his commission, Revere used as inspiration for his design a style of Chinese commemorative bowls that were being made of porcelain for export to Britain and the Colonies at the time.

And we thought the "Made in China" stuff was a recent phenomenon!

At any rate, those Chinese bowls - remember, the Hmong are originally from China - were already apparently popular in the New World, meaning Colonists readily understood the significance of Revere's model.  And since Revere's bowl signified a special resistance to England's draconian taxes, his rum punch bowl quickly assumed a symbolic cultural status.  Indeed, by the time my parents got married, and received this replica as a gift, the Revere bowl had become well-established in traditional Americana, and remains so to this day.  Even if most modern brides probably don't receive them as wedding presents (although the famed Tiffany studio still makes a Revere reproduction in silver).

All this to say that, while I studied these two bowls in my parents' house, I came to realize how identical they were, even though the Revere bowl is relatively unadorned.  The sides of both bowls have the same slope, and the height of their cup shapes are almost the same.  On a whim, I decided to place the Revere bowl on top of the Hmong bowl, because it looked like their circumferences were the same.  And indeed, they are!

Maybe that's not cool to you, but it was to me.  How ironic that two bowls representing significance within two completely different cultures end up having almost the same exact shape, size, and proportions!

For the record, you'll note that the Hmong bowl is actually two bowls bolted together at their pedestals.  The smaller bowl is the same shape, just in a smaller size.  So technically, I could unbolt them and have two bowls.  Which, maybe, some Hmong families do.

And, although maybe it's hard to tell, the square base under the Hmong bowl is actually a square of granite from Deer Isle, Maine, and is intended to keep the bowl's metal from scratching the wood table.

Okay, so none of this is Earth-shattering news.  It's not controversial or kinky.  But doesn't it kinda make our world just a little bit smaller, realizing that no matter how different our various cultures may be, we share more than we may realize?

Not because ceremonial or commemorative bowls are the way to achieve world peace.  But they can be the same shape of things that used to be, from the opposite sides of our planet, and our history.

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