Yunnan is a refreshing change from the difficulties of Guizhou. It is a province made rich by its popular tourism industry. In Yunnan, we see blue skies for the first time in China. We explore the ‘old town’ of Lijiang, the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek, ancient Weishan, the silversmiths of Xinghua, and Yi artisans in Zhoumulang.
The trip to China has been a myth-busting exercise. Before we left Australia, we had been told that China was a rude and unhelpful country, a country of polluted and over-populated cities. In Yunnan, those stereotypes are forgotten. As the ancient Chinese proverb says, in Yunnan ‘the mountains are high and the emperor is far’.
In Dali old town, we are on the banks of the sapphire blue Erhai Lake in the shade of the snow-blessed Cangshan Mountain. We breathe fresh mountain air; at night we can see the stars. We eat thick noodles at child-sized tables and chairs on the side of the street. We walk along paved streets, among peaked tiled roofs with white and blue tile memorials. The eaves of the roofs are designed with heads of phoenixes and dragons, which used to represent the dominant family in a marriage. If the wife’s family was the more influential, a phoenix would be placed as the top most animal on the eave; a dragon would represent the husband’s family. We browse shops of fresh fruit, bakeries, and silversmiths.
It is in Dali that the disappointment of Guizhou batik-hunting is left far behind. The owner of the Dragonfly Hostel, a young American named Chris, offers to accompany us to a collective of Bai artisans in Zhoucheng: an ancient tie-dye handicraft village that used to sell fabrics on the caravan trading routes of the Southern Silk Road during the ancient Dali Empire in 700AD. The next day a convoy of fabric hunters ride scooters and motorbikes in the glorious Dali sunshine. Chris proves to be an invaluable asset as tour guide, interpreter, historian, and negotiator. He explains that the Bai people have a strong history in the region and are known for their artistic creativity including architecture, sculpture, painting and music. While a minority in China, there are still close to 2 million people who identify as Bai in China.
We pass marble-shapers on the road out of town and Chris tells us that Dali used to be the main source of marble for China, so much so that marble used to be called ‘Dali stone’ throughout China. We speed around the sapphire blue Erhai Lake, through old coastal towns; the Cangshan Mountain looming over us to our left, three ancient pagodas stand erect against the backdrop. Legend says that the area around Dali used to flood frequently until the Bai people were advised by mystics that the turtle energy of the lake was overpowering the energy of the mountain. To improve the fengshui, the people of Dali were told to build three pagodas. These pagodas were built in 618AD and the legends say that the area has never flooded since. When the Mongols swept through Dali, these three pagodas were all that remained of the old civilisation.
We arrive at Zhoucheng collective: a small warehouse with a white stone courtyard. Crinkled, butcher’s paper ladies practise their ancient Bai textile crafts. They wear chequered shirts and black headdresses embroidered with flowers. Their eyes glint with humour when they ask us for money for photos. The walls of the courtyard are adorned with twisted, knotted, blue and green fabrics that dry in the wind. The patterns are intricate; butterflies, fish, flowers. Within the warehouse a young man, hands encased in thick industrial gloves, stirs a limestone-crusted vat of compounded indigo plant matter. In March and April every year, the artisans reap a plant called radix isatidis, squeeze out the succus and pour it into the vats. Once lime or alkali is added it can be used to dye the cloth.
Our two butcher’s paper artisans demonstrate the stitch resistance dyeing method: a process of twisting and stitching fabrics that can take days depending on the size of the material. They remove stitches in another fabric which opens up a whole new layer of blue and white patterning. Chris explains there are many ways of producing the traditional Bai fabric from brushing patterns, to soaking and dyeing, steam-boiling, and dip-dyeing.
Tika and Jessie wander through the display room in a daze as our guide and now fabric expert, Chris, explains that the more intricate patterns can take days to complete. The girls stop at one particular fabric which catches their eye; it is predominantly white, a much more complex effect achieved by removing stitches in the weave. The girls have finally found the fabric they’ve been looking for. As we leave the warehouse, more old ladies are waiting for us. They grab our hands and push us into their homes and try to sell us their wares with insistent charm. The girls find a darker fabric that complements their first selection in a dusty room filled with laughing old ladies. This will become Wolftress‘ second feature fabric of the collection.
It has been a long search but ultimately the girls are happy with the final product. The scale of production in Zhoucheng is noticeably larger than in the Miao villages of Guizhou. Bai fabrics are traditionally used for blankets and curtains which mean they are already producing larger fabrics than in Guizhou. What’s more, Zhoucheng benefits from Yunnan province’s thriving tourism industry. From the first moment you step off the public bus in Zhoucheng, elderly Bai artisans start the sale with cracked smiles and wrinkled eyes.
There are concerns that cheap tourist imitation products could threaten the Bai textiles livelihood. However, the prints are poor imitations of the beautifully crafted Bai fabrics and there is an obvious cheapness in the design. Watching the artisans work, it is easy to see how these styles cannot be properly replicated by modern technological advances. I understand why the girls travelled so far to find the perfect fabric.
We leave China with the Miao artisans in our thoughts. While one ethnic community’s textile skills and traditions flourish thanks to the aid of thriving domestic tourism, another community’s traditions wane and lose value. We learned that there are ways to preserve traditional ethnic cultures, even in a country developing as quickly as China. The difficulty is how to keep these traditional designs relevant and valued.
Maybe Jessie and Kartika hold the key. As Wolftress grows as a fashion label they hope to not just work with communities already capable of supporting themselves but to encourage and assist struggling communities in the continuation of their crafts to create a more vibrant textiles future.