China: Chinese Village Keeps Alive a Tradition of Indigo Dyeing

DALI VILLAGE, China :The young woman sat at the foot of the wooden loom and began to weave. As her fingers passed the orange shuttle back and forth through the delicate cotton threads, the creaky contraption sprang to life.Yang Xiuying — a plucky woman no taller than the loom — peered over her granddaughter’s shoulder, inspecting the newly emerging fabric for flaws. Ever since she was a young girl, Ms. Yang, 74, has been weaving and dyeing indigo textiles using techniques that the ethnic Dong in the southern Chinese province of Guizhou have passed down from mother to daughter over generations.

“You can’t buy this type of handmade cloth at the market,” Ms. Yang said, patting a bolt of gleaming indigo-colored cloth with her wrinkled, navy-stained hands.Here in Dali, an ancient village nestled in verdant hills, making indigo cloth has long been a part of life, no less important to the Dong than farming rice or fermenting fish.

Even in this era of fast fashion, many Dong women still devote countless hours to making the dark, glossy cloth. The fabric must be woven, wrung, scrubbed and pounded before it can be used to create traditional Dong cotton garments — dark navy costumes with colorful flower trim for the women and plain indigo for the men.“For a Dong family, having a loom is just as important as having a cow,” said Lai Lei, the founder of a weaving and dyeing co-op in a nearby village. “As children, we grow up listening to the sound of the loom.”

Dyeing is so woven into Dali’s culture that the practice even survived the Cultural Revolution, when many other Dong traditions, such as shamanism, were stamped out by communist fanatics trying to destroy what they saw as a feudal past.But the traditions have come under a different threat since China’s market economy took off in recent decades. As the lure of work and education has drawn youth to China’s growing cities, few young Dong women are left in villages like this one.Of those who remain, even fewer show interest in learning the labor-intensive techniques of indigo dyeing.

“I want to teach my daughters, but they don’t want to learn,” said Zhang Yuyuan, 75, as she stepped back from plunging fabric into a navy-blue bath. “They say, ‘We’ll just mess it up, so you should just do it.’”Hoping to save Dali’s folk traditions, provincial officials in 2011 invited in the Global Heritage Fund, a preservation organization based in California.

The Global Heritage Fund has begun working with Atlas Studio, a Beijing-based design studio, to set up a weaving and dyeing co-op in Dali. The aim is twofold: to create opportunities to work closer to home and to persuade young Dong women to learn their traditions.“For a long time, Guizhou has known that one of its strongest cultural resources is the ethnic minority villages,” said Kuanghan Li, the China program director of the Global Heritage Fund. “Now rural villages are a hot topic in China.”Tourism has yet to take off in Dali, though it may only be a matter of time. Unlike many villages in China where preservation has been undertaken with a heavy hand, the village has the feel of an untouched oasis, due in part to its remote location.

Even today, it is accessible only by a narrow mountain road that winds through lush bamboo forests before descending down into a valley where sloping gray-tiled rooftops huddle closely together.A recent visit to the village found the few hundred or so residents hard at work. Nearly every family grows its own rice and indigo, and both were ready for harvest.

Source: Global Times, China
Monday, 13 November 2017

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