Tujia Woman Promotes Ethnic Culture Through Literature, Songs

ByYe Shan October 7, 2023

"A flower that I have, blooms after rain falls; its fragrance fills the garden, that a butterfly comes just for it." The above is a short poem written by Deng Chaoyu, a young woman from Changyang, an ethnic Tujia autonomous county in Yichang, a city in Central China's Hubei Province. Deng says her poem reflects a simple truth: If one persists in what he/she likes, and if he/she spends enough time developing his/her interest, sooner or later, it will become a shining point for him/ her, one that attracts appreciation from others. Deng likes writing and singing, and she has helped design dresses that contain the Tujia people's artistic brocades, known as Xilankapu. She does her part to promote the traditional arts and culture of the ethnic Tujia people. 

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight … This forms 'danbagou' (a circle of eight-hook-like pattern), one of the most traditional, decorative patterns on Tujia people's artistic brocades," Deng explained, during a recent interview with Women of China. She held a round-shaped placemat for tableware. In Deng's residence, many of her household items are decorated with Tujia brocades, known as Xilankapu. 

Tujia Woman Promotes Ethnic Culture Through Literature, Songs

Xilankapu, which means "knitted floral bedding" in the Tujia dialect, was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2006. It is one of the five famous categories of Chinese brocades. (The other four are: Shu brocade, from Southwest China's Sichuan Province; Yun brocade, from Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province; Song brocade, from Suzhou, also in Jiangsu Province; and, Zhuang brocade, from South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.) Xilankapu is unique for the hand-weaving techniques used to make it; colored silk, cotton and/or woolen threads are woven to form patterns on latitudes, while deep-colored cotton threads are woven to form patterns on longitudes. Classic Xilankapu patterns include natural sceneries, birds and animals, household items, flowers and other plants, geometric drawings, and Chinese characters with auspicious meanings. 

Tujia Woman Promotes Ethnic Culture Through Literature, Songs


Deng's earliest memory of Xilankapu dates back to her childhood, when she was in Changyang. "At the age of 5 or 6, I saw my mother place her colorful beddings and shoe-pads, with Xilankapu brocades, onto the ground for drying items in the open air. Mom told me they are important dowries for a Tujia woman," Deng recalls. 

The classic "danbagou" pattern looks like people holding hands together, symbolizing the unity of the Chinese nation, Deng explains. Xilankapu, a cultural treasure of the Tujia people, has been passed from generation to generation for more than 1,000 years. It inspires Deng to love nature and respect life. She believes she shoulders the responsibility both to protect and promote the unique ethnic art form. 

International Film Stage Debut

In 2017, Deng was invited to attend the closing ceremony of the world-famous Cannes Film Festival, in France. She debuted on the international film stage with a red dress, decorated with a phoenix pattern and Tujia brocades. "Phoenix is an important totem for Tujia people. When I discussed with my clothes designer what to wear for the film festival, I immediately thought of our ethnic Tujia clothing. But I wanted to make an innovative design. We adopted classic patterns from Tujia brocades. A group of craftswomen completed my 'red phoenix' dress in five months. I was extremely happy to show our ethnic arts to the film festival's attendees, who came from around the world," Deng says. 

Not surprisingly, Deng's dress appealed to many foreign friends, who praised the Tujia brocades as "beautiful" or "wonderful." Some gave Deng warm hugs. Deng presented Tujia brocades, as gifts, to French actress Juliette Binoche and some other guests. "I come from an ethnic Tujia county. I have grown up with the influence of Tujia culture and arts. Wherever I go, I will never forget where my 'roots' are. I hope to show the charm of my ethnic group to the world. I am proud of being a Chinese; and, in particular, I am proud of being a Tujia woman," Deng said, during the ceremony

Tujia Woman Promotes Ethnic Culture Through Literature, Songs

Love for Hometown in Poems, Songs 

Deng likes writing and singing. When she is asked about the flower-and-butterfly poem, Deng explains, "I wrote it when I was in college. Some of my schoolmates quoted the poem when they were dating their beloved girlfriends. But, in fact, I want to express the significance of persistence in this poem. A flower bud waits, firmly, until a rainfall comes, and it blooms. Its fragrance will naturally attract butterflies. It's the same with us — people. If we grow up, healthily and positively, we will be like fragrant flowers, and we will get approval and appreciation from others." 

Deng learned vocal music from Jin Tielin, a renowned Chinese vocal professor, musician and former president of the China Conservatory of Music. Jin wrote a message to Deng on the title page of a collection of her poems. "Master Jin urged me to sing with clear articulation, and a mellow and full tune, and he noted that learning is an endless journey. Whether I write or sing, the more I learn, the more deeply I have to think. How can I do it better? How will I go beyond what I have reached?" Deng says she continuously pushes herself to figure out answers to such questions. 

In recent years, Deng has written poems and sung songs about her hometown, Changyang. Wearing her favorite Tujia clothes, the young artist has performed in various programs produced by China Central Television (CCTV). "The key concept of national vocal music is inheritance of classic works. Maybe in five years, or 10 years, I will be able to sing more songs that highlight the craftsmanship of our Tuijia brocades and other ethnic cultural charms," Deng told Women of China. 

Tujia Woman Promotes Ethnic Culture Through Literature, Songs

Tujia Children's Dreams Come True 

One Tujia woman, nicknamed Aping, is fond of singing. When Aping was a young girl, she dreamed of becoming a music teacher. On September 3, 2020, in collaboration with the China Social Welfare Foundation, Deng launched a project to help ethnic Tujia children fulfill their dreams in the field of music. Aping is a beneficiary of that project. She received funding to study in a school with good music-education resources. Now, Aping is on her way to realizing her dream. 

Deng held a charitable concert in Yichang as well. She raised money, which she provided to disadvantaged Tujia families, so the children of those families could attend school. She has also provided funding to build music-education rooms and reading rooms in Changyang. Deng hopes more ethnic Tujia children will enter classrooms, to receive a good education. She also hopes the children will learn to inherit the essence of their ethnic culture and arts.


Photos Supplied by Zhang Jiamin and Deng Chaoyu  

(Women of China English Monthly September 2023 issue)


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