The “Night of China” show in London Fashion Week of 2020 unveiled a series of costumes of a Miao ethnic minority group from Danzhai, Guizhou. On the blue background of rough fabrics, the batik designs were visually created to tell of the Miao ancient stories passed down from generations. While the western fashion makers on both sides of the runway could barely understand what these pictographic patterns meant, the batik costumes had brought quite an impact on the scene in an extraordinary and “cool” way.
The Miao clothing under the international spotlight was courtesy of the Ninghang Institute of Batik Heritage (NIBH) in Danzhan County, Guizhou Province, with handiwork from its female artists.
From Danzhai to London, it all started in the summer of 2016, when Zhan Yaqi, a Guiyang girl studying in London, returned to her hometown with a plan to shoot a documentary film that reflected local conditions and customs. She saw the NIBH story on the Internet, and that was what allured her to Danzhai to start shooting with her camera. Three years later, the British Embassy was looking for something about Chinese heritage, and Zhan Yaqi contributed her work. At the end of 2019, the NIBH received an invitation to London Fashion Week, and it was all planned out: the Miao batik makers walking the runway with model dresses of their own design at the show, only to find that they had to stay put and send the clothes to London because of the Covid-19 outbreak. In a video sent back by the organizer, the batik wear on the international supermodels also looks attractively unique.
Out of home
Thirteen years ago, Ning Manli, born and raised in Anhui Province, lost money in the fabric business. For a bit of distraction in the most frustrating days of her life, she went on a tour to Guizhou, where she happened to see batik at a folk fair in Kaili, and was keenly aware of business opportunities in it. She decided to leave everything behind, move there and to set up a batik workshop. After learning that Paimo Stockaded Village in Danzhai County offered the best batik skill, Ning thought about it all night and decided to go and see it for herself.
Miao batik in Danzhai has been rated as a national intangible cultural heritage, and Paimo Stockaded Village in Yangwu Town is best known for this kind of folk art. Yangwu Town is located south of mid-Danzhai, with a majority of ethnic minorities like Miao accounting for 85.2% of the population. All women practice batik craft, and they live in 21 natural villages over an area of more than 50 square kilometers in the south of Danzhai. Geographically isolated, these villages have long been shut out from the outside world. To address daily needs, the local people have gradually developed a self-sufficient petty-farming economy, and have consciously or unconsciously preserved the ancient batik practice over time.
Paimo Stockaded Village is famous for batik art, but access is not easy with its rugged terrains. The first time Ning Manli ventured into the village, roads were out of question, and she barely knew where she should go. At a fork, she stopped and waited for someone to ask for directions, and then continued to walk until the late hours of the day, amid the gently rolling hills and vibrant patches of green poised to look as if they were greeting the guest from afar. When she finally drew near, it was getting dark, and the sound of a creek rustling past grass led her to a nest of twinkling lights down in the village. She knocked on the door of one of the homes, walked in, and carefully introduced herself, only to realize the language barrier. This particular Miao family was apparently having dinner. Ning Manli still fussed about how to make her understood, when she was pulled to the dinner table. “Come, eat, eat, and drink.” She understood what that meant, and was so touched by such warmth from the people completely unknown to her, that she was at a loss for what to do. Halfway through the meal, the neighbor next door also came with his own wine. A roomful of Miao people greeted each other like long-lost family. While words were painfully incomprehensible, wine was perfectly drinkable, with hospitality at its best. After the meal, Ning Manli actually drank too much and passed out.
The next day, the Miao family showed Ning around the village and the fields they farmed. A look at the running mountain ranges would rid you of all the worries in the world. By then, Ning explained why she came. “I will take with me a few batik-making ladies, so they can work and make money in the county, free boarding and all.” The Miaos’ first response was “impossible.” All their lives, they used batik to make their own clothes, bed sheets, quilts and bags. How could they earn money by doing that?
Now, just across, Ning caught sight of a woman on the second floor of the stockaded building. She was traditionally dressed in indigo batik with a dark blue headdress, greeting Ning with a wave of her left hand and calling her up to her chambers. “She was so quiet a woman,” Ning recalled. “Disabled, disadvantaged, and living in such a place. With only one left hand, she is the most deprived of the entire deprived village.” Yang Erlang is the name of this one-handed batik maker, who fell off the cliff when it rained and lost an arm. The villagers said that she was most gifted in drawing batik patterns. Ning reiterated her offer again, but Yang Erlang took it with a grain of salt. Without uttering a word, she refused.
Although she convinced none of the ladies to come along, Ning didn’t lose heart at all. “Their grandmothers and mothers batiked just for their own use, and the only source of income comes from toiling away in their little farms and raising pigs and chickens. How come their youngsters can make a living just by batiking?” Ning thinks it was understandable why the people did not trust her.
To Ning Manli, her first visit to the Miao village was not daunting at all; it was oddly reassuring. When she returned to the county, Ning spent a month setting up all kinds of paraphernalia for her batik workshop. When she hiked to Paimo Village again, most of the people she met last time had forgotten her, but not Yang Erlang, whom Ning managed to engage in a take-stock of the entire village to find “how many people can batik, how many makers are available, and how many are real good.” The second attempted persuasion was pretty much like the first: no one agreed to go with her. But she wanted to try again.
By the third time, the Paimo batik makers recognized Ning.
“It’s you again!” They exclaimed.
“I would still like to take you out to the county.”
“We go with you, but is there a place to stay? Eat and sleep? How much money can you give us?”
As far as money was concerned, Ning was not so sure. “At least 20 yuan a day, 600 yuan a month.” Ning heedlessly said some numbers, but she felt hopeful this time as she saw the ladies looking surprised.
Yang Erlang, Luo Banfang, and Wang-you Li-le are the first group of batik makers Ning Manli finally brought out of the village. “That day, they came along carrying only their bed sheets,” Ning recalled. “We walked all day and didn’t talk much. They followed me and kept walking.” How to make a living, how to start the business, how to sell batik products, she had little idea. “No matter what, I will manage to keep them well-fed,” Ning thought.
Three ladies Ning initially worked with would visit home once a month, and every time they returned, one or two fellow ladies would follow them to the workshop, until the number reached 48. With an income rising from 600 yuan to anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 yuan a month, these women now are the major financial backbones of their families. Back at home the husband grows the indigo plant used to dye the cloth, meaning that batik has become a lifeline for the entire family. More and more female batik makers are coming out of their villages not only from Danzhan alone, but from across Guizhou Province, leaving farm travails and making the most of their traditional handicraft skills for more job opportunities and incomes.
Yang Erlang, the first batik maker who took Ning’s offer and now literally the walking brand of the workshop, did not understand what good might come off being one-handed, which only caused her trouble in the farm. Batik is one of the few things she can do with ease and grace. Called to take our interview, however, she left her carving table looking apprehensive and anxious. “My worry is that you can’t understand what I’m saying. You talk with the boss and I just go back to work.” She wanted to excuse herself just a few minutes into the interview.
“She’s the cutest of all our artists,” Ning said. “She is always the first one to get up and work in the morning and the last one to call it a day at night, never one of those who often asks for a leave to go shopping or plant sweet potatoes back home. Many people are fascinated by her one-handedness, only to find that her work is more fascinating.”
The Miao community of Danzhai, Guizhou Province, is the last bird totem tribe alive in China, and they have preserved their culture so well that their daily lives are still imbedded with various traditional cultural elements, best represented in batik. In their own batik craft, bird-like patterns are a recurring theme, combined with designs featuring other oviparous creatures, flowers and plants. The rare mixture symbolizes how the Miao ancestors of Danzhai held in awe various life forms and reflects their positive outlook on life.
One of the collectibles in the NIBH is none other than Yang’s One Hundred Birds. As she set out to create this masterpiece, she went outside and collected 100 pebbles. When she finished one bird pattern, she threw out one pebble. When all the pebbles were gone, completed were One Hundred Birds, which came in various shapes and sizes, with the lines of feathers different from one another.
Whatever was assigned to the ladies would always end up surprising Ning Manli. “They’re infinitely creative. It is in their genes. They are natural artists.” They have never been to school or officially trained, and their free creations float somewhere between realism and abstractionism. Like Yang Erlang, every batik maker can see numerous kinds of birds in her mind’s eye.
Life in the NIBH is carefree. The artists may work when they are struck by a new idea or otherwise rest when they feel uninspired. They can drink and sing whenever they feel like it. They believe that they have a craft upon which they can live better. The workspace of Yang Erlang is in the front corner of the studio, and when she is at it, nothing in the world can distract her. Dozens of wax knives are lining up. The wax is bubbling. Without any prior preparations, the left hand is moving across the canvas. There she sits, small as she is, frowning at times, both eyes ablaze with focus. It is in these eyes that a prime piece of art awaits its birth.
A shy girl who feared that she might be tricked to the county 12 years ago is now an inheritor of batik craft in all of Guizhou as well as a presence in many national exhibitions and contests.
In 2016, Ning took Yang to Beijing for a TV presentation. After filming, Ning asked where she wanted to go. “Tiananmen Square,” came her reply in a firm tone that Ning had never heard. At 7 o’clock the next morning, Ning found Yang Erlang’s hotel door open, and she was already dressed up. “I worried that we might be late, so I got dressed around 5 o’clock.” Her face had excitement written all over as she was waiting, and when it was time to go, she was carrying a big bag. When they arrived at Tiananmen Square and passed the security check, “It’s that red house over there.” Before Ning could finish, Yang yanked out Miao costumes and silver ornaments from the bag and began to put them on. She did her hair the best she could, and with a faithful look on her face she walked towards Chairman Mao’s portrait.
“I want to sing a song to Chairman Mao.” As soon as she said that, she started to sing aloud to the Miao tune, without the slightest trace of being shy and timid. She was all herself now. Her singing attracted many people to watch and take pictures. Ning took out her mobile phone and recorded the moment, while tears rolled down on her cheeks. “I asked her what she sang, and she said she thanked Chairman Mao for creating equal opportunities for everyone so she could break free and fly all the way to Tiananmen Square like a bird”.
Home away from home
Over the typical “geometric patterns” in batik, Yang Erlang and other makers prefer “natural patterns”. Geometric patterns are abstract and generalized, the most representative of which is “vortex”, a kind of spirals said to have been handed down from Miao ancestors and to be used on the back, shoulder pad, and sleeves of women’s festive wear. These are unchangeable. Natural patterns, in depicting flowers, birds, fish and insects, are far more flexible and vivid, with lines running free to create lively representations. The respected Chinese writer Mu Xin said: “The best way to inherit cultural heritage is to let it passed down naturally, not consciously. The latter would inevitably lead to imitation, a copycat mindset, which is only as good as damaging ancestral tradition.” This is true of batik inheritance.
In 2016, designer Cheng Hao found in Beijing an exhibition that featured the cultural heritage of Danzhai. The event, called “Millennium Vortex” gave Cheng an idea of doing batik. In August 2017, Cheng visited Danzhai, saw the works of NIBH artists, and was deeply touched by how Yang Erlang crafted using just one hand. Eventually, Cheng designed six sets of batik style clothing in one month. “Batik gives my design more soul.” Cheng said.
The use of batik in the fashion world, however, seemed to have offended the makers, who refused to draw the patterns and styles Cheng had designed. For the Miao people, each pattern has its profound meaning inherited from their ancestors and is not to be tempered with. Cheng understood the ladies’ feelings, and he began to think about how to make these new elements acceptable in a way that the local artists could come to terms with the fact that integration and innovation are not about abandoning tradition, but a renewal. He asked several of them to try to draw batik samples. Then he brought the samples back to Beijing and applied them to his own designs. Finally, he had some pictures taken of the modelled products and sent to the Miao batik makers. Seeing their works so elegantly donned, the ladies were less uncooperative.
In January 2020, Cheng Hao moved to Danzhai. He would make designs in the studio during the day, and chat, sing and drink with the ladies at night. On occasions, he also taught them Chinese characters. During the epidemic, he designed costumes to reflect the “god of thunder” and the “god of fire”, the names of the temporary medical units that saved thousands of lives. After learning what he intended to do, Yang Erlang transformed the images of the gods into a more charmingly vivid Miao pattern of “birdie head with a torso of thunder”.
Ning Manli and Cheng Hao are among those who have found home away from home. Together with the Miao ladies, they found what they wanted to do and could do well in Danzhai. The motto, “One group of people, one cause, one lifetime”, is ubiquitous in the NIBH. From the studio to the dyeing room, there are pictures of the batik makers hanging on the wall, with their names captioned below. Stand against the wall and look up, you will see a cascade of dyed cloth more than ten meters high pouring down from the top floor, and batik makers running up and down the staircase, checking the cloth every now and then to make sure it’s properly dried. Day after day, the ladies never lose sight of their batik-dyed cloth – or their faith.
The Miao women who live in the mountains of Guizhou honor their ancient faith through wax knives and dyed fabrics. Later, the wisdom of new generations gave a new life to the traditional craft of batik and sent the spirit of their bird totem to as far as abroad. All is being renewed, and there they are, the Miao batik makers, sitting there and drawing a world from their souls.
Born in 1963, she is a nationally accredited inheritor of batik art in Guizhou Province and a native of Paimo Village, Danzhai County, Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou.
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine