We continue our search for Batik textiles a few hours east of Anshun in Kaili. When you travel, sometimes it feels as if cities possess vibrations, or maybe cities are reflections of our own changing moods and we misguidedly attribute a higher significance to them. Either way, Kaili sits well with us. The air is fresher, the city feels less claustrophobic. The people are friendly and ask for pictures. When we arrive in town, a young woman accompanies us to find a hotel. One morning, a stranger pays for our breakfast. On Sundays, the streets of Kaili are full to bursting with market produce: herbs, spices, roots, dead cats, heavy machinery, fighting birds in cages, what looks to be a badger strung up by its feet, outdoor hairdressers, velvet garments embroidered with bright flowers sold by women who stick combs and large flowers in their tight hair buns.
We enlist Billy Zhang, a local Miao tour guide, to help us with our search for Batik. Billy is in his late thirties but he hasn’t lost his cheeky smile and laugh. He advises us that genuine Batik designs are hard to find; people dry out prints in the sun to make them look real; factories use chemical indigo dye and non-traditional designs. Billy takes us to a factory in Kaili where the designs are computer-generated: they are more precise, but less authentic.
Billy suggests we visit Matang, a Miao village. There are 37 Miao groups in the area, defined by their hairstyle. People are expected to marry the hairstyle of their group. A flower in a bun once symbolised that the wearer was eligible for marriage; nowadays it is a common fashion accessory. According to Billy, the village of Matang is 400 years old and 125 families live there. Families can move away from the village but new families can’t move in. In Matang, rice paddies are brightened by canola fields and cherry blossom trees. Dried corn and chilli hang from the roofs of houses to impress visiting families or potential suitors: this tradition shows the family is not lazy, that they have food to eat, and that they’re successful. Amongst the hanging chilli and corn are caged birds the children train instead of playing computer games.
Billy tells us that Miao people eat dog but only in the winter, ‘in summer it will make you sick’. They only eat white dogs because ‘they’re clean’. I can’t tell if he’s joking or not, but the logic sounds dubious. In the local Miao villages, couples who are guests can’t stay in a room together, only the hosts can share a room. If couples do share a room, the hosts have to kill a pig.
Billy takes us to the home workshop of Chiao Me, a female Miao Batik artisan in Matang. Rich blue cloths hang from the walls: white honey wax separates the indigo dye from intricate designs shaped by hand. The garments inside Chiao Me’s workshop are of incontestable beauty and quality, infused with the history and tradition of the Miao people.
“The Guizhou Batik designs are 1,500 years old and are usually representative of a Miao legend or tradition typical to the area,” Billy says.
He points to a design; a white sun with a flower in the centre encircled by fish and butterflies.
“In this design the sun represents life; the fish, fertility; and according to Miao creationist belief the butterfly is the mother of our human ancestors.”
He points to another design, a square inside a circle.
“Be flexible to others’ ideas, stay true to your own self.”
Billy shows us a shirt that was made 100 years ago and costs 10,000 Yuan (A$2,100).
Many Miao traditions are associated with indigo and Batik. Miao people cover their babies’ heads with Batik-designed sheets to protect them from evil spirits. There are different Batik designs for single and married women. Batik flags and banners are waved during Miao festivals in honour of their ancestors and spirits. Miao people believe there is a spirit in the indigo and to keep it happy they add alcohol to the dye.
Chiao Me makes a livelihood from her Batik design skills but she is one of only a few Miao artisans in the area who still do. Chiao Me teaches a few local artisans how to make Batik, but it’s clear that the craft is dying out just like in Shitouzhai. In a rapidly developing China it is becoming increasingly hard to preserve ethnic cultures and their traditional lifestyles. Local women make more money in farming. People are moving away from traditional villages in search of better living standards and greater incomes. Batik design skills are being replaced by computer-generated factory products and cheap imitations for tourists. Despite the importance of the Batik trade to Miao culture, a lack of interest in the artisan skills has forced the local artisans to all but abandon their trade and seek other sources of income in order to survive.
The intricate designs that brought Jessie and Kartika to the Miao communities in Guizhou are what make it impossible for them to use in their collections. Chiao Me makes the wax herself, her production scale is limited by the size of her dye vat. It takes her one week to make four metres of a complicated design and Wolftress can’t use such small-scale production in their collections.
I wonder what would happen to Matang, Chiao Me, and the Miao traditions given a thriving tourism industry. As we leave Matang, a group of Miao teenagers dressed in their traditional clothing dance to Beyonce.