China: Yunnan’s Batik is Knot Just Art, It’s Business

By Ajitha Menon, Womens Feature Service

Duan Jiacxing’s eyesight is getting weaker as the years go by but even at 76, the lady continues to spend hours bent over white linen, painstakingly tying tiny knots according to a pattern. This tied linen will be dyed to produce fine ‘batik’.

In Zhoucheng village on the northern side of Dali in the Yunnan Province of China, over 7,000 women of all ages, who are highly skilled at ‘batik’, have made this tie and dye art their life’s work, bringing the colour of prosperity into their homes.

Batik is popular in West African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon and also in Asia. India, Sri Lanka and China all have practitioners of this art. “In China, we can trace ‘batik’ back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD) and to Zhoucheng, inhabited by the Bai ethnic minority community. We claim a history of at least 300 years,” says Jiacxing, who started ‘batik’ work from the age of six on her grandmother’s lap. Jiacxing’s daughter-in-law and two daughters are also talented ‘batik’ artists and her son helps in the dyeing of the linen.

“In Zhoucheng, we generally dye the cloth with indigo after the design is traced on it and the knots tied accordingly,” says Tuan Juan, 20. “But in Guizhou, in south west China, beeswax is used to settle the designs and when the wax is removed with hot water, the images appear. Indigo is specific to the region, both in tie-dye form and wax printing or ‘laran’ ‘batik’, and is used for the basic cloth throughout China to give dark blue hues on white,” explains Juan.

Hence, unlike ‘batik’ in Africa or even the Indian ‘bandhej’ or ‘bandhini’, the tie-dye and wax printing done by Chinese women is easily identifiable and unique because of its indigo and white patterns. “We make a paste from the harvested indigo plants that have been soaked in a wooden barrel to get the distinctive blue colour,” says Liu Haijiao, 26. “Dali has an agriculture-based economy but as part of promotion of national commerce, ‘batik’ art form was encouraged as a collective village enterprise from 1984 and it has paid rich dividends.

Initially, the Butterfly Brand Batik Factory was set up at Zhoucheng, as a collective enterprise, with only 34 workers. But soon the work was contracted out to about 5,000 households. In 1997, our turnover touched RNB 10 million (US$1 = RNB 6.8) and now we make nearly RNB 15 million,” she adds with pride.

The returns from ‘batik’ have been so good that most of the men in the ‘batik’ villages help in the work, particularly, in the dyeing that is still done by rolling the dye drums manually. However, it is the women who are the skilled ‘batik’ artists, their talents handed down through generations within the Miao, Bai, Gejia, Bouyei and Yi communities throughout southwest China. “On an average, we can earn about 1,500 Yuan per month within the collective enterprise,” says Haijiao, adding, “Many women have also set up their own shops in the village to sell the merchandise directly. They make much more money that way, as the profits are wholly theirs. Zhoucheng has now earned a name for itself as a ‘batik’ village and many tourists and serious buyers from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan come here directly to do the buying.”

As an art form, the charm of ‘batik’ lies in its storytelling. “Through the designs we tell stories about the dragons in Dali’s Erhai lake, the significance of our famous pagodas and temples and also our local legends,” informs Yang Chun Yu, 20. “As youngsters, we get attracted by the stories first and then to the art work itself. All of us went to school and have basic education. But at home, we were involved in the ‘batik’ form from childhood, its finer points explained to us by our mothers and grandmothers. We start with untying the knots after the dyeing and then move onto tying the knots according to designs and designing. The work is painstaking and demands extreme concentration but we enjoy the community aspect, as women mostly work in groups and the dyeing and designing workshops are generally set up together,” she points out.

Moving on with the times, the artists now use the traditional art of ‘batik’-making in innovative and modern ways. “We have introduced new themes and included more cultural and social messages like ones on our matriarchal societies, community living and protection of environment. We are making an effort to weave issues and concepts from the modern era with the charm of batik storytelling,” says Lee Zhiou, 56. “We incorporate a lot from nature. Fruits and flowers figure regularly in our works. Butterflies are used regularly along with other motifs. A butterfly design ‘batik’ tablecloth, explaining its evolution from a caterpillar, would take me about a month to complete,” details Zhiou.

The traditional designs are geometry based. More figurative designs like that of flowers, birds and fish, have been introduced by the workers over the years. ‘Batik’ cloth is generally made into garments such as scarves, shirts, skirts or blouses or into bags, bedspreads, curtains and decorative items. The raw material for Chinese ‘batik’ is almost always pure cotton. “There is huge demand for our work abroad. ‘Batik’ items from here are exported to European countries. Japan is one of the biggest buyers of course. Japanese businessmen come and place orders with us,” says Yang Chun Yu. The prefecture administration has done its part in this by setting up a quasi-permanent fair market ground in the area in 1997. “Since the Tang Dynasty we have had a Third Month Market in Dali run by the Bais for five days in mid-April. It has been an annual commercial event with buying and selling along with socialising and horseracing. Now, with administrative intervention, we have a round-the-year market place where we mainly sell ‘batik’ goods along with medicinal herbs, furs, handmade jewellery, hats, shoes and even livestock,” says Tuan Juan.

The women admit that their socio-economic uplift has come through the ‘batik’ enterprise. Zhoucheng is one of the most prosperous villages in Dali, maintaining its heritage old town look and also promoting itself as a tourist spot for visitors interested in local ‘batik’. The success achieved in the ‘batik’ venture has also ensured that the young women who left the village immediately after completing middle school in search of work in the cities as waitresses, receptionists or sometimes even as domestic helps are now staying put and working with dignity. Says the elderly Jiacxing, “Batik is not just a means to earn a living for us. We are aware that we have a great traditional wealth in our hands and it is our duty to hand it over to subsequent generations for posterity.”

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