There are ethnic Chinese minorities scattered over several provinces of southern China – Yunnan , Guizhou , Guangxi and Hunan. Recently I spent few days in the Dong village of Guizhou, and it really seemed like 5 days weren’t enough to uncover the full riches and mysteries of this beautiful village along with it’s incredible heritage in textiles. I can still picture the Dong village in blue mists so vividly, and I’m not just talking about the landscape, but for almost 2000 years people in this region have been wearing the same hue of blue that the mountainous landscape surrounds it. As a native to southern China, I resonate with this blue as it is synonymous with home. So after studying fashion in Paris and working for a myriad of fashion houses, I have returned home to take a closer look at this blue that saturates my memories.
A good number of indigo plant varieties grow in Southern China. They sit pretty among village vegetables and maize plots. These indigo plants are used to dye clothes which were made exclusively from local resources, like cotton, hemp, ramie and silk – woven and spun by hand.
The weather in June is already moist and sultry but Dong women are still dressed in their heavy cotton indigo jackets, which are padded mind you. These padded jackets are quilted by sandwiching a layer of pure cotton between 2 layers of indigo fabric. Upon visiting, you will see that the outer fabric is shiny dark blue, the fibers crushed together, making it not only shiny but also relatively waterproof and against the wind and cold. Also Dong women will use their fine embroidery skills to decorate the jacket with symbolic motifs; suns , spirals, swastikas – usually in raw silk and often in a single colour. Everywhere in Dong village you can see the same blue, worn by most women, with a shoulder pole and on children paying in the dust or round the lengths of raw cloth hanging to dry.
Dong textiles are labour intensive and feats of skill. I did some field research into the process by visiting local museums and talking first hand to the local Dong women (who may I add, were especially lovely to me). Usually the Dong women buy pieces of local fabric at the market. They scratch them, wash them in the river and boil them up in a pan of water to prepare them for the dyeing process. They then filter cooking water and pour it in to a large basin filled with their natural indigo dye, agitating the fabric in the hot sticky liquid. The roll of dyed cloth is then dried in sun, usually hung from a pole and that is what makes the Dong village the most stunning sight. When the roll of cloth is dry, they fold it to the size of a special stone they use to beat it. The following day, the cloth is shiny and crisp, and the whole process of cooking, drying , folding and beating is repeated. This process can be done on repeat for about three days! The resulting fabric is the most beautiful deep, dark indigo cloth – so dark that it’s almost black and shiny like a shell. It’s hard to believe that this elegant piece of fabric is the result of such manual and aggressive treatment.
Wake up in Dong village and you will understand what I mean when I say blue encompasses everything. The wind and rain bridges, the symbolic drum towers, the paved streets, the mountain peaks, and even the reflections of the rice fields radiate similar hues of blue. I love the bridges that rainbow over the local river and surrounding rice fields. Villagers always gather here to chill out or celebrate. Protected from the weather, I learned that it was also an ideal place for drying the Dong indigo fabric when it rained. For me it became a link between the village and the outside world, between the human and the natural world.
Written and shot by Songyi Yan.