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Posts Tagged ‘Chinese minorities’

When we went to the Miao New Year Festival in Guizhou this year, I was surprised to see that the famous pleated batik skirts worn by many Miao girls were not in fact batik at all, just printed imitations. I wondered if this meant that batik is becoming a dying art and decided to try and find out if fine batik is still being made in this part of Guizhou.

I thought I would start with the best. Lots of Miao groups use batik in their costumes but the absolute mistresses of batik are Gejia women. The indigo and white batik they make is fantastically fine and precise, with delicate lines, beautiful shapes and spirals. We have bought many pieces in Thailand over the years and I would love to watch a real expert at work.

The Gejia don’t think of themselves as Miao but the Chinese “Minorities” administration has lumped them all together so they are classified as a Miao for the time being. The women are very recognisable in their sweet little milkmaid caps and blue pinnies.

My heart sinks somewhat when we reach the first village – the tell-tale signs of the Chinese Tourist Board are there. The coach park, the face-lifted facades, the cobbled lanes, the signs in English. In the “Batik home workshop” there’s a woman making what looks like a scarf that a tourist might buy – but it’s not the fine work the Gejia are known for. To tell you the truth, she is much more interested in selling us some batik than making it.

And indeed there is some lovely stuff for sale but it’s all old. There’s a lovely pleated skirt, but they don’t make those anymore, a batik apron but now the ones they wear are just plain blue. And on close inspection of my batiking lady’s cap I can see… oh horror! It’s a print too!

We leave for our next stop, the local market. It’s a colourful sight with lots of Gejia ladies and they are all wearing the self-same printed batik cap. But worse than that they are flocking to buy their “batik” from the printed batik stall! Oh dear! Am I witnessing the end of Gejia batik?

There is some consolation in the beautiful baby carriers which all look like genuine batik to me, and the very nice duffel bags a lot of the women use (but aren’t on sale).

My next stop is another Gejia village well away from the tourist trail. It’s quite a hike to get there and the views are stunning. There are not many people around, most are in their fields. Two men are sawing wood into planks with a hand saw and an old woman and her granddaughter are embroidering. No they’re not doing batik anymore, no nobody in the village is – no they stopped a year or so ago… Oh dear, this does not look too good.

A week later we get to a Miao village called Wuji. The old village is tucked into a steep mountainside, so steep that a road couldn’t be built to it. So in line with government policy a new village has been built next to the road. Except it doesn’t exactly look like a village.

Also because a super expressway has recently opened which by-passes this area, no buses now want to go this way. And who can blame them, the road is pretty dreadful and only local minibuses make the bumpy journey. Why two westerners would want to get off here is obviously a mystery to our driver who needs some persuading that we will be able to make our way back from here to civilisation.

We’re here because I’ve been told this is where the wonderful batik banners I’ve read about are made. These long, indigo dyed batik flags featuring phoenixes, dragons and other fantastical creatures are used in special ceremonies to honour the village’s ancestors. These are conducted every twelve years or so. Obviously apart from this rather limited market, they are also very attractive and can be sold to tourists.

The batik work is fine and beautifully expressive and I am so impressed I end up buying more than I intended (What a surprise!)

So after a very unscientific survey I would conclude that very fine batik may become a harder to find in these parts. Perhaps it is inevitable. Times are changing and not everyone wants to spend so much time waxing and dyeing – especially when you can buy a print from the market for a fraction of the price and it looks almost as good.

Oh and by the way, in spite of the worries from our Chinese “minders” we managed to hitch our way back and found a very comfy bed for the night without a problem!

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