Posts Tagged ‘Dong’

Polished Indigo from Zhaoxing

Zhaoxing is about the size of Bishop’s Castle – half way between a big village and a small town. The people here belong to a clan called the Dong and are famous for their beautiful textiles, lovely architecture and great singing. It’s almost unbelievably picturesque but also unbelievably for China – it seems real. Money has been spent on preserving it but it hasn’t been tarted up to resemble a Disneyesque version of rural China – it just is one.

Getting here was a strange and rather surreal journey. From Kaili the bus goes straight out onto the toll way – a smooth and fast road with hardly any traffic on it for 3 hours.

This expressway soars high above deep valleys on long, long flyovers – incredible feats of civil engineering. Any one of them would be something to marvel at in the UK – only this is China so we drive over at least twenty of them. Far, far below are rice fields and rivers and villages – looking down is not a good idea for anyone who doesn’t like heights.

Interspersed with the flyovers are tunnels burying into the mountainsides – again at least twenty tunnels of between 1 and 3 kilometres each. It seems as if the Chinese road planners just drew a straight line on the map and built the road there, no matter what stood in its way.

If the expressway is surreal, getting off it is even more so. Suddenly within a few yards, we are on an un-tarmacked dirt track, rutted with potholes, rocks, and stones. What I imagined could only be a temporary diversion is in fact the road. What on earth is going on? It would cost a tiny fraction of the cost of one of those bridges to tarmac this road but instead we are treated to a couple of hours of wild rocking and bumping along. At the wheel of the bus is a madman who drives as if he’s at the rodeo, with one hand on the wheel and the other lighting a fag or opening the window to spit out of it – preceded by copious amounts of “hawking” (I’m sitting right behind so I can see and hear it all!)

After one night in a crummy small town hotel we get on a country bus through villages and the expressway once again appears, but this time we are the ones below. We walk the last 7 kms with beautiful rice fields on either side of us but the detritus of the construction industry is never far away. Big apartment blocks stand on the horizon, and there are sand and gravel extraction quarries, tunnels and huge concrete flyover pillars waiting for the next road to join them up.

A group of women have set up their indigo vats and drying racks near a stream. Judging by the blue dyed pathway, it’s a place which they have always used. It’s a charming timeless scene (sorry to get a little sentimental) if you ignore the cement factory, flyover, and construction work in the background. Their surroundings are resolutely 21st century.

It comes as quite a surprise then to walk into Zhaoxing and find that it is not full of high rise 5*hotels, and nor is it being ripped apart and put back together again only “better”. Tourism is important here (it just couldn’t get away with being this ridiculously pretty without it) but there is a real thriving community too.

In fact it’s all so interesting that it’s hard to tear yourself away from gazing out from our balcony and just watching all the stuff going on. Old chaps play cards together or sit and smoke on the covered bridges, kids make mud pies and little girls play “elastic” (and to the same rules as the playground in Cov I played in the 1960s) Clothes and veggies are washed in the river and hung up to dry, bamboo is split and stripped and baskets woven, cement is mixed for building, and wood is sawn into planks, rice is threshed, you name it, it’s all going on in this incredibly industrious little place!

And one thing you notice immediately in the village is the amazing amount of deep dark blue cotton lengths hanging down from almost every house. Outside almost every home there’s a wooden vat or two of indigo.

Wherever you look its Indigo Central!

The weather is good and the rice has been harvested so the women are mostly engaged in dyeing and hammering their indigo. The sound of the big wooden hammers beating down on the folded indigo is the first sound I hear in the morning and the last at night.

I love indigo as much as the next textile freak, but even I have to say “That’s enough ladies, thank you”.

So here’s something about indigo for those you may be interested…

The freshly cut leaves and stalks of plants which contain indigo are steeped in a big barrel of water for a day or two. When the  water turns a dirty yellowish colour, the leaves are taken out of the vat. The water is aerated by repeatedly stirring and pouring and it gradually changes to a deep blue colour and develops a nice light blue froth.

The sediment from this vat makes a lovely sludgy deep blue paste which can be sold at market or kept to make a vat of dye when you need it. So indigo dyeing can be done throughout the year, not just when the leaves are fresh. An indigo vat is usually kept on the go pretty permanently and can be revived with more paste and wood ash. That distinctively pungent whiff is everywhere and almost every house in Zhaoxing has a vat or two of indigo outside.

If the weather is fine, each cloth will get about 3 dips a day – and this may be repeated for up to 7 days. Each time the cloth comes out of the dye, it gets beaten with a stick to allow the dye to really penetrate into the cloth. It’s then hung out to dry in between each dip and that is how you get the really deep, deep blue colour. There’s a tree root which may also be added to make the dye almost black and I’ve heard they add bull’s blood too, but cannot confirm!

But all this is not enough for the good ladies of Zhaoxing – they want their indigo cloth to shine! So next they coat it with a sticky gluey stuff made from what looks like dried fish eggs. They do this three times and after each coat they hammer it with their incredibly heavy wooden mallets. I had a go at it – those mallets weigh about 3kgs!

This lovely polished cloth is finally ready to be made up into jackets or the lovely finely pleated skirts the Dong and Miao women wear at festival times.

What a wonderful place and what an incredible textile tradition! The Dong people have been living in villages like this for something like 2,000 years. Their terraced fields cut into the mountainsides, their irrigation systems and their self-sufficient community life is beautifully adapted for this part of the world.

But this is 21st century China and what will happen to them in the next twenty is anybody’s guess!


I had heard that coats of egg white are also used to waterproof the indigo but could never catch anyone actually doing it – until we went to another village (Basha) where everyone was at it!

A father and young son on their way to a ceremony in the early morning mountain mists.

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We are here in Guizhou which is apparently the poorest province in China, and “without 3 acres of flat land, 3 days of good weather or 3 yuan to rub together”. Hmmm… well as with most things in China, things are never as you expect.

For a start Kaili was supposed to be a “sleepy little town” – as far as I know there is nowhere on earth where the amount of building sites and sky scrapers on view here could possibly constitute a “sleepy little town”!

Just like everywhere else we’ve been in this country, billions of yuan are being spent on construction. The “old town” is being repaved, restored and made into one hell of a mess while all around and below people shop in the markets and go about their business. Wheelbarrows full of bricks are hoisted aloft while babies sleep and toddlers play below, sellers set up stall amongst the cement mixers and shoppers dodge the loose pavement slabs and potholes.

On the southern edge of Kaili City, a whole new town is being built and on local TV and advertising hoardings, there are exhortations to invest in property. Communism is Dead! Long Live Capitalism! The restrictions have finally come off and just as in everything else, the Chinese are going full tilt.

In China, the Han are about 92% of the population and the other 8% are called the “minorities” – we’ve already been through the Uyghur and Tibetan minority regions and now we’re in amongst the “hill-tribes”. Around Kaili, about 80% of the population belong to a minority group – mostly Miao or Dong.

To the untrained eye the minority people here seem more integrated into the mainstream, at least in the towns and cities. In many cases it’s the women’s head gear or hairstyles which give them away – strange little bonnets, squares of deep blue cotton, fringed hand towels, polished red turbans, and especially bunnage of various descriptions usually augmented by artificial roses, plastic combs, vicious looking silver chopsticks, metal wire hair pins and what have you.. But more often than not hill tribe folk are indistinguishable from anybody else.

There seems to be a propensity for inappropriate leather shorts (the young and not so young women) and elaborately styled and dyed “emo” haircuts (the young men) but that may just be the fashion everywhere!

But clan costume is still very important around these parts and it’s something not easy for us to relate to – but imagine if everyone from Scotland still wore their own tartan no matter where they were, especially on high days and holidays (Burns Night, New Year’s Eve, Bank Holiday pissups etc.) They would quickly recognise anyone else from their Clan whether they were in Edinburgh, London or Sydney. It’s just the same when the various tribal people here get into their gear –they are instantly recognisable.

But that’s not the end of it – there are numerous sub branches of each nationality – and this is especially true of the Miao. For example in South East Guizhou there are 37 different Miao groups – and they each have their own dialect and costume. If this was South west Shropshire there would be the Clun Clan, the Bishop’s Castle Brigade, the Mainstone Posse, the Brockton  Lot, the Chirbury Crew and so on (feel free to substitute your own local villages here) and we would all be able to distinguish each other by our different accents and our very different  costumes.

We women would spend most of our spare time getting these amazing costumes together for our village “dos” (Michaelmas Fair, Green Man day, Carnival, the Village Show or whatever) because we’d need a new one every year. I suppose that just like here, folk from off would travel for miles to see our ceremonies and take photos, write books and make documentaries about us.

The young people would be very happy to get out and go into the big city (Shrewsbury!) for their education, a job or some entertainment and the old folk would be terrified to leave the village –couldn’t read the writing and wouldn’t know where to get the bus back.

But even more so than in the UK, things are changing at a rapid pace. Not so long ago, at the time of the Cultural Revolution, all minority culture was severely suppressed and ceremonies and ethnic costumes were made illegal. Even the remotest villages had their Party members who made sure that the latest edicts on “eliminating the old ways” were adhered to. That changed in 1980 and since then there has been a total turn around in minority consciousness. Gradually the old traditions, dress and ceremonies have become re-established, and nowadays they are positively encouraged.

“Minority tourism” is big business these days and money is being poured into rebuilding traditional village structures like the drum towers and the covered “wind and rain” bridges, not forgetting the open performance area.

Here tourist groups are treated to daily music and dancing shows from the lovely tribal girls all dressed up in their finery.

About 20 years ago, all the villages got electricity and this led to television being available. Then all the villages had to get themselves a road and if that couldn’t be achieved, they had to move nearer to the road and this led to motorbikes and easier access to transport. Then there were mobile phones and the internet and now there’s mass tourism and the expressway.

But whatever the changes, the amazing ethnic mix of south-western China is still a joy. The splendid costumes and the techniques and the incredible skills used to make them are just gobsmacking. It would take a couple of lifetimes just to understand all the traditional textile techniques of this province alone. So I am just going to let it all wash over me and see what sticks.

That said, we arrived just in time to see a huge Miao New Year ceremony involving six or seven different groups in highly impressive full regalia.

Almost all those costumes relied heavily on machine embroidery and there are plenty on sale in the shops.

But the good thing about not having to embroider a new costume every year is that you have more time to devote to your cross stitch kit!

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