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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, that according to legend belonged to a noble family from India. She was brought to Mexico through the Spanish East Indies (Philippines), and has been credited since the Porfiriato with creating the china dress. 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 beata - a religious woman who took personal religious vows without entering a convent. 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 at the time it was common to use the term chino to refer to all persons of Asian descent, regardless of actual ethnicity.)
According to two of her confessors who wrote hagiographies of her life, 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 then delivered to Manila where she was purchased as a slave by a 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 popular 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.
¡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.
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:
—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 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, in Mexican culture "there is no place for a woman that is not a saint or a prostitute." 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.
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 20th 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