As the Chinese Government has made greater efforts to protect China's cultural heritage in recent years, an increasing number of Chinese have tended to place greater value on "knickknacks" and "old-folk items" than they did in previous years. When you marvel at the beauty and artistic charm of the items, you might not fully appreciate how much effort the craftspeople put into making the items. They have spent years creating crafts, with skill, determination and patience, and they have constantly perfected their skills and innovated the technical skills used to create the crafts. We should give our thumbs up to women inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, especially those who have broken the gender barrier by inheriting the crafts traditionally passed down to men. In this edition, Women of China English Monthly shares the stories of women inheritors, who create gorgeous fabrics.
|Rong Yamei [Photo by Hu Yaling]|
Exquisite Brocades Living Fossils of Historical Development of Lis' Fabrics
The brocade-making craft of the Li ethnic group has been handed down from generation to generation, by women to their daughters, for more than three millennia. The craft integrates spinning, weaving, dyeing and embroidering skills. Based on their fertile imagination and careful observations of life, the women have created numerous exquisite brocades with various patterns, including men, animals and plants. The patterns have embodied the Lis' distinct cultural features, from which people may get a glimpse into the Lis' historical changes, folk customs, myths and legends, religious beliefs and rituals. Therefore, experts of Chinese folklore refer to the brocades as the "living fossils" of the historical development of the Lis' fabrics. In 2006, China added the Lis' brocade-making craft to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage. The art form was added to the list of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)'s intangible cultural heritage in 2009.
Lis' brocades play an important role in the people's social and cultural lives. For example, during traditional festivals, Li women customarily dress in splendid, self-made brocade attire.
"Many Li girls begin studying, from their mothers, the skills needed to make brocades at an early age," says Rong Yamei. "At first, the girls imitate their mothers' crafts. As they gradually improve their craft-making skills, the girls design their own patterns while they create brocades."
When she was 8 years old, Rong began studying the craft-making skills from Zhang Xueyun, her mother. Zhang was one of the best craftswomen in her hometown, Qianjia, a town in Ledong Li Autonomous County, in south China's Hainan Province. Given her lively mind and quick hands, Rong began creating brocades (including curtains, clothes and adornments), with various patterns, when she was 13 years old.
"In accordance with Lis' customs, mothers make wedding skirts for their daughters," says Ji Xiaofei, Rong's youngest daughter. "As my grandma had to make wedding skirts for my mom's elder sister and two younger sisters, Mom created her own skirt. The skirt was decorated with men and frog-shaped patterns, which expressed Mom's desire to have many offspring, live a happy life and have high social status. It is one of the brocades that has given Mom the greatest satisfaction."
Now that Rong has taught her three daughters how to make brocades, she hopes the girls will understand her crafts embody her motherly love.
Although Rong could easily buy yarn from the market, she insists on using her self-cultivated cotton to make brocades. She believes that will help her maintain the crafts' original charm. She also collects plants, which are used to dye her brocades, on the mountain near her village.
Many visitors were attracted by Rong's artwork during the first Lis' brocade craft competition. The event was held in Hainan Province in 2006. Rong received an award during the competition.
Rong is sad that due to some historical reasons, the craft form has been in decline in recent years. Now, there are less than 1,000 Li women (most of whom are in their 70s), who understand how to make brocades. Among the women, less than 200 master the skills of weaving and dyeing the items.
"I'll try my best to help girls and young women in our village improve their craft-making skills ... As we Lis do not have a written language, I hope the young people will get a glimpse into our historical and cultural development through the swatches. I also hope the craft will be passed down from generation to generation," says Rong. She will continue to work hard to live up to her mother's expectations, and try her best to promote the traditional craft, so more people will understand the beauty of the art form.
Tujias' Brocade-making Craft
"Xilan" literally means "bedspread" in the Tujia language, and "Kapu" means "flower." Hence, "Xilankapu" is a brocade bedspread with floral patterns. The item is made from silk, cotton or hemp. An old weaving machine is used to make the brocade items, which boast rich, symmetrical patterns. The weavers use a needle-like tool, which is made of bamboo or an ox's horn, to weave the items. Xilankapu dates back more than 2,000 years. The craft originated during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) in the You River Basin in Western Hunan Province (in Central China). The craft flourished during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. During the Ming and Qing dynasties and the Republic of China (1912-1949) era, Xilankapu was used as part of Tujia women's dowry. During the 1990s, the Tujia people began creating brocade wall hangings and other artworks. In 2006, after the Tujias' brocade-making craft was listed among the first group of elements designated national intangible cultural heritage, Xilankapu generated a great deal of attention within China's fashion industry.
The unique brocades record the history and civilization of the Tujia people. More than 200 types of patterns, including animals, plants, Tujia words and astronomical phenomena, have been passed down from ancient times.
When she was a child, Ye Shuiyun started to learn, from Ye Yucui, her aunt, how to weave brocades. Ye Yucui was the best craftswoman in her home village. "Each time I made a mistake while I wove a brocade, my aunt would ask me to unravel the item and to redo the work. I learned, through the bitter experiences, that I should spare no effort in pursuing perfection in whatever I do," Ye Shuiyun recalls.
In 1984, the Longshan (a county in western Hunan Province) Brocades Plant employed Ye Shuiyun as a technician. In 1987, she was appointed deputy director of the Jishou (a city in the region) Brocades Plant.
From 1988-1991, Ye Shuiyun studied at an art school in Fenghuang, a county in western Hunan Province. In 1991, she began teaching, at the school, the Tujias' brocade-making skills. In her spare time, she exerted every effort to study the traditional craft and improve her craft-making skills.
Ye Shuiyun in 2001 established Shuiyun Brocades Workshop in Fenghuang. The workshop sold brocade items created by Ye Shuiyun and her apprentices.
Based on careful studies of the Tujia brocades' traditional patterns, Ye Shuiyun has developed her own style of designing brocades. She prefers to use light, elegant colors when she makes brocades. She has also made improvements to the loom, so craftspeople can use it to create brocades with more colorful, true-to-life patterns.
When asked about the most difficult part of her work, Ye Shuiyun said it was quite challenging to design patterns for brocades. "I always examine my finished works carefully, so I can improve their patterns when I recreate the items," Ye Shuiyun was quoted as saying.
The brocade, with the patterns that depict a battle during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), is the item that has given Ye Shuiyun the greatest satisfaction. She rewove the item seven times before she submitted it to organizers of the Second "Lotus Cup" International Industrial Designs and Innovations Competition, hosted by the People's Government of Hunan Province. The event was held in 2010. Ye Shuiyun's work earned her the first prize of creative designs for tourism industry.
Given her outstanding contributions to promoting the craft, the UNESCO in 1996 named Ye Shuiyun a "Chinese folk artist in China." In 2007, China's Ministry of Culture recognized her as a State-level inheritor of the craft.
During the past two decades, Ye Shuiyun has provided training to more than 1,000 middle school students in western Hunan Province, to help them improve their craft-making skills.
"Few people are willing to study the craft these days," says Ye Shuiyun. "Why? It takes a lot of effort and the craftspeople receive very little pay for their brocades. Also, an increasing number of young and middle-aged Tujia people in recent years have left home to work elsewhere to help with their families' daily expenses. As a result, there are few successors to the traditional craft."
A few years ago, Ye Shuiyun closed the Shuiyun Brocades Workshop so she could spend more time collecting the traditional patterns of the Tujias' brocades. So far, she has collected more than 300 brocade artworks created by elderly Tujia craftspeople. "I hope more people will see the exquisite artworks," says Ye Shuiyun.
|Qian Xiaoping [Photo by Zeng Yiping]|
Craftswoman Strives to Rejuvenate Song Brocade-making Craft
Song brocades originated in Suzhou, a city in East China's Jiangsu Province, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The artworks, with various patterns (including animals, plants and auspicious patterns, such as a dragon and a phoenix, which represent prosperity and good luck), embody the unique culture of the Chinese nation.
There was a peak in the development of the craft between the 14th and 19th centuries. However, affected by the modern Western industrial development and the chaos of wars in China, the traditional Chinese craft started to wane during the early 20th century. Shortly after the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the Song Brocades Cooperative was established in Suzhou. The China Reproduction Center of the Cultural Relics of Silk Embroideries and Woven Products, which was established in Suzhou in 1995, has been dedicated to studying the crafts of weaving and dyeing the items, and to reproducing the cultural relics. The center is the first of its kind in China. In 2006, China added the Song brocade-making craft to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage. The craft was added to the list of UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage in 2009.
The "New Chinese-styled Outfits" debuted during the banquet to welcome the leaders who attended the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meetings in Beijing in November 2014. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who hosted the banquet, his wife, Peng Liyuan, and the leaders of and guests from participating countries wore the specially designed Chinese-styled outfits during the banquet, which was held in Beijing on November 10, 2014. The outfits, which were made of Song brocades and embodied traditional Chinese cultural elements, immediately caught the attention of people around the world.
While numerous visitors from around the world marveled at the ingenious designs and superb workmanship of the outfits, few people were aware of how much effort Qian Xiaoping had put into promoting the Song brocade-making craft. She wrote the introduction to the traditional Chinese craft, which the Suzhou Municipal Cultural Affairs Bureau used, in 2006, to apply to China's Ministry of Culture for inclusion of the craft on the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage.
Qian often recalls her experiences in striving to rejuvenate the craft during the past several decades. In 1957, she, who was then 18, was assigned to work at the Suzhou Silk Research Institute.
In 1991, the Suzhou Silk Museum opened to public. The museum was the first of its kind in China. Qian had put a lot of effort into promoting the museum's establishment.
Qian during the past 18 years has led technicians and craftspeople in the reproduction of more than 20 silk cultural relics, based on their studies of the treasures' historical records. Given the achievements in their studies, they have received the National Science and Technology Progress Award. They have also reproduced some Song brocades, which were created during the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties.
"It is a challenging task to reproduce the cultural relics, as few drafts and historical records of the original artworks can be found," says Qian. "Every time I get the draft of a brocade, I look at it carefully with a magnifier. It usually takes me a few months to study the item's patterns. Then, I design the item's weaving methods."
Despite her advanced age, Qian takes delight in promoting the traditional Chinese craft. Before she goes to sleep every night, she ponders what she should do to promote the craft. The next morning, she will lose no time to put her ideas into action.
Zhang 'Guardian Angel' of Yunjin Brocades
Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province, is renowned for Yunjin brocades. "Yun" literally means "clouds" and "Yunjin" is a general term for the traditional jacquard silk fabric. As its name indicates, the brocades are as gorgeous as the clouds in the sky. Records indicate the Yunjin brocade-making craft dates back more than 1,600 years. The items originated during the Six Dynasties (222-589). Nanjing was the capital during the Six Dynasties. During the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), Emperor Andi ordered the establishment of the Jin Bureau to produce brocades for the royal family. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1271-1911), the exquisite works of art were offered as tributes to members of the imperial families. However, the popularity of the art form started to wane during the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908). In 1957, China established the Nanjing Yunjin Research Institute, which was dedicated to promoting the craft. To make the most complicated type of the brocades, craftspeople must complete more than 100 complicated procedures, including designing patterns on the items, and dyeing and weaving silk threads, birds' feathers and other materials (into the brocades). It takes craftspeople at least a year to create a large brocade. In May 2005, China added the Yunjin brocade-making craft to the list of the country's intangible cultural heritage. The art form was added to the list of UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage in 2009.
Given the brocades' smooth texture and ingenious, creative designs, many Chinese and foreign artists recognize the craft as an exquisite art form.
"I have forged a close bond with the craft for almost four decades," says Zhang Yuying, curator of Nanjing Yunjin Museum of China and Vice-President of the Nanjing Yunjin Research Institute. "I would like to work for the museum as a volunteer, after I retire from it."
In 1979, Zhang, then 20, was employed by the institute. She learned the craft-making skills from experienced workers. Given her diligence and wisdom, she quickly honed her skills.
In 1979, a team, composed of the craftspeople from the institute, were assigned an arduous task: To reproduce the robe of Emperor Wanli (from the Ming Dynasty). The robe was carbonized and it had turned black a short time after it was unearthed from a tomb of the emperor in Beijing in 1958. The craftspeople had a hard time reproducing the robe, which was woven with peacocks' feathers.
Zhang was often so absorbed in collecting and studying the robe-related information that she forgot all about food and sleep. She will never forget how excited she was when she accompanied, in 1984, the institute's leaders, during the trip to Beijing, to ask experts in cultural relics to appraise the robe.
Zhang was pleased when she learned the robe, reproduced by the team, won the recognition of the experts of cultural relics. During the following 10-plus years, she spared no effort to improve her craft-making skills. She was later promoted to vice-president of the institute.
Zhang in recent years has put much effort into blazing new trails while she has made brocades. For example, she arranged couples to work on wooden looms, to improve work efficiency. "In ancient times, the craft was supposed to be passed on to men," says Zhang. "The craft requires two people to work on a loom. Arranging couples to work together has been proven an effective way to increase brocades' production."
Inclusion of the craft on UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage, in 2009, should be attributed, in part, to the efforts of Zhang and her colleagues to promote the craft worldwide during the previous eight years.
In recent years, Zhang has led the institute's workers to inherit and innovate techniques used to make brocades, so they can display the unique charm of artworks to the world. They have also put much effort into promoting business cooperation between the institute and listed companies.
When asked why she had worked so hard to promote the craft over the years, Zhang replied, "My ardent enthusiasm for the art has been a great source of inspiration for me."
|A piece of Yunjin brocade|
Kang Xinqin [Photo by Tai Xiaotian]
'Wunijing's Clothes and Quilts Best in the World'
Wunijing Craft of Handweaving Cotton
"Granny Huang, Granny Huang, teach me to spin yarn and weave cloth." Virtually every woman, who lives in Huajing (formally called Wunijing), a town in East China's Shanghai Municipality, teaches children to chant that rhyme. "Granny Huang" mentioned in the rhyme is Huang Daopo, who introduced the craft of handweaving cotton of the Li people (who lived in South China's Hainan Province) to the Han people during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). After many women in Wunijing learned, from Huang, the craft-making skills, they used looms to create numerous pieces of cloth, with various exquisite patterns. As a result, Songjiang District (the location of Wunijing) became the center for cotton weaving in China. During the Yuan Dynasty, many people in China believed "Wunijing's clothes and quilts were the best in the world." The craft of handweaving cotton has been handed down from generation to generation, by women to their daughters, for millennia. In 2006, China added the Wunijing craft of handweaving cotton to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage.
Chinese for generations have admired Huang for introducing the craft of handweaving cotton to the Han people, and for making improvements to the loom. Huang, who was born into a poverty-stricken family in Shanghai's Wunijing Town in 1245, was sold to a local family, as a child bride, when she was around 13 years old. Unable to tolerate the abuse inflicted on her by her husband's family, she fled to Yazhou, a district in Hainan Province. She returned to Wunijing 30 years later, when she was adept at weaving cotton.
She learned the craft from the Lis, and then she taught it to people in her hometown. She also took one of the Lis' looms home, where she made improvements to the tool. As a result, Songjiang became the center for cotton weaving in China.
"Most of the girls in my village began studying weaving … at an early age," says Kang Xinqin, the only State-level inheritor of the Wunijing craft of handweaving cotton. "All of the villagers wore handwoven cotton clothes, which were soft, durable."
In 1957, the Shanghai Municipal Government repaired Huang's tomb. The government in 1986 included the tomb on the list of cultural relics under the city's protection. Out of her respect for Huang, Kang has swept, from time to time, Huang's tomb during the past three decades.
Since Chinese began using machines in the textile industry, few people have woven cloth by hand.
Kang gently declined the overture, when the officials of Xuhui's Cultural Affairs Bureau in 2013 asked her to be the State-level inheritor of the craft. She told the officials she had not woven cloth for more than 50 years, and that she might have forgotten the craft-making skills.
Within a short time, the bureau's officials asked Kang to watch an elderly woman, who lived in Qibao, a town in Shanghai, weave cotton on a spinning wheel. When she saw the woman could hardly operate the wheel, Kang taught her how to use the tool. Many people gathered around Kang, as she spun cotton into tough threads. She moved her hands so nimbly that one could hardly believe she was in her 80s.
In 2006, China's Ministry of Culture named Kang as the only State-level inheritor of the Wunijing craft of handweaving cotton. She has taken on five apprentices during the past few years.
Kang and her apprentices in recent years have taken pains to cultivate young boys and girls, in Xuhui, as their successors. "I hope through our efforts, the intangible cultural heritage will stay alive," says Kang.
Wunijing handwoven cotton cloth [Photo by Tai Xiaotian]
(Source: Women of China English Monthly April 2018 issue)