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Posts Tagged ‘Gejia’

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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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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