China's Intangible Cultural Heritage Mainly in the Hands of Women

June 8, 2013  Editor: Amanda Wu

To date, China has established three lists of national intangible cultural heritage, nearly all of which have women inheritors. Here we list national intangible cultural heritage which women play an important role in keeping alive.

Paper Cutting

A woman makes a paper cut. [ Zhiwei]

A woman makes a paper cut. [ Zhiwei]

Paper cutting, which dates back to the sixth century, is a traditional Chinese handcraft used for decorative purposes that is thought to attract good luck and prosperity. Red is the most common color of this art form.

The handcraft's emergence and development are closely connected to festive Chinese customs in rural areas. At every festival and wedding, the Chinese like to decorate their windows, walls, doors and lamps with beautiful paper cuts to add to the joyous atmosphere.

Paper cutting is the art of cutting paper designs. Scissors or knives are usually used to cut out and form different patterns on paper.

Chinese paper cutting was the original form of this type of design, since paper was invented by Cai Lun (61-121) in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) in China. The art form later spread to other parts of the world.

Because paper cuts are often used to decorate doors and windows in China, they are sometimes referred to 'window flowers'.

In 2006, paper cutting was included in the first national intangible heritage list by the State Council, China's Cabinet.

In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included Chinese paper cutting in the fourth Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Cloth Tiger Puppets

An elderly woman teaches her granddaughter how to make cloth tiger puppets. []

An elderly woman teaches her granddaughter how to make cloth tiger puppets. []

The cloth tiger puppet is a traditional folk handcraft which has been popular since ancient times. It comes in a diverse variety suitable for use as children's toys, interior decorations and gifts as well as sought-after objects for personal collections.

The puppet derives from the Chinese people's love of the tiger dating back as early as the period of Fu Xi, who reigned during the mid-29th century BC as the first of the Three Sovereigns of ancient China.

The New Exploration of Chinese Civilization's Source by famous ethnologist Liu Yaohan records, "Fu was originally a tiger totem, but historians began to believe the dragon was significant in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) and Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD)." As a result, the tiger totem was earlier than the dragon totem.

The tiger is believed to be able to ward off evil and bad luck, to stand for safety and good luck, and to protect wealth. It also embodies people's pursuit of happy lives. As a result, cloth tiger puppets have a great circle of admirers.

During the Dragon Boat Festival which falls on May 5 of the Chinese lunar calendar, people make tiger puppets for children or draw tiger faces on children's foreheads to convey wishes for children to be healthy, strong and brave.

The cloth tiger puppet was included in the second national intangible cultural heritage list in 2008.


A woman working on embroidery []

A woman working on embroidery []

Embroidery is a traditional handcraft involving the sewing of various decorative patterns on different fabrics with needle and thread. The art of embroidery was an important part of a woman's education in China, at least until a few generations ago.

According to the Book of Documents, one of the Five Classics of ancient China which constitutes speeches of major figures and records of events, embroidered clothes were included in the clothing system dating back earlier than 4,000 years.

Embroidered items also played an important role in rites and rituals, with carefully designed patterns that indicated rank and importance in the imperial courts, and differing degrees of respect for deities in religious ceremonies.

In the courts, the embroidered panel on the front of an official's robe would immediately identify his rank. Elaborate altar cloths in shrines and temples were a reflection of the congregation's devotion, and wealth.

A girl was trained to sew and embroider as soon as she was old enough to hold a needle. Her embroidery work would start with handkerchiefs, towels and pillowcases and expand to sheets, tablecloths, underwear and outer jackets that would slowly accumulate into an impressive dowry.

Embroidery was also appreciated as an art, and various regions in China developed their unique styles. Apart from Han embroidery, there are four other major styles from Suzhou, Guangdong, Sichuan and Hunan, all of which were included in the first national intangible cultural heritage list in 2006.

Brocade Weaving

A woman weaves brocade. []

A woman weaves brocade. []

The brocade represents the highest level of skill working silk fabric in China. It is constructed from dyed vertical and horizontal threads, which are interwoven through each other to make various patterns.

The art of brocade weaving has a long history. Silk was in use as early as the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC), and people wove colorful brocade during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC).

During the Han Dynasty, brocade offices were set up to organize people to weave the fabric for the royal families.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), people began to weave beautiful brocade of different patterns.

Large weaving workshops were set up to produce brocade during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Major types of brocade include Zhuang from south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Yun from Nanjiang in east China's Jiangsu Province, Shu from southwest China's Sichuan Province and Song from Jiangsu Province's Suzhou.

Shu brocade was listed as one of the first national intangible cultural heritage in 2006 while the other three were included in the second national intangible cultural heritage list in 2008.

Cloth Dyeing

A cloth made by wax dyeing []

A cloth made by wax dyeing []

China's cloth dyeing craftsmanship was developed as early as the Western Zhou Period (1046-771 BC).

The Classic of Rites, one of the Five Classics of ancient China which constitutes the core of the traditional Confucian canon, records the work of cloth dyeing was overseen by officials.

Wax dyeing, one type of the form, is an ancient and unique handcraft of the Miao ethnic group. It dates back to the Qin Dynasty and the following Han Dynasty, becoming popular during the Sui Dynasty (581–618) and the following Tang Dynasty.

Miao women used wax to draw patterns on silk, cotton, wool and other fabrics, which were then placed in dye pot for the dyeing process. The wax-treated parts would not take the dye and beautiful patterns were produced when the wax was removed.

Known as the oldest handcraft, wax dyeing has been passed down from generation to generation among ethnic minorities in southwestern China, especially in Guizhou Province.

It has become a necessary art form for minority women to master. Their clothes and living articles, such as pillow covers and bags, are made of wax-dyed cloth.

Guizhou wax dyeing was included in the first national intangible heritage list in 2006.

(Source: and edited by

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