China Batik

China has a long history of batik production dating back to the sixth century and probably beyond. Today you can still find batik being done by the ethnic people in Guizhou Province, in the South-West of China. Here the Miao, Bouyei and Gejia people use a dye resist method that is different from the Han Chinese. There are also many different sub groups within the Miao minority. The Miao place great emphasis on their costumes which are made up of decorative fabrics, created by pattern weaving and wax resist. Almost all the Miao decorate hemp and cotton (not silk) by applying hot wax then dipping the cloth in an indigo dye. The cloth is then used for skirts, panels on jackets, aprons and baby carriers. Batik printing is an age-old traditional folk handicraft for fabric printing and dyeing in China. It was named together with tie dyeing and stencil printing as “Three Major Printing Crafts in Ancient China”. Stripes on wax printed cloth result from natural cracking of the wax, which contributes to the uniqueness of every wax printed work. Batik printing is thus known as a sort of cloth painting with “Fingerprints”.  Featuring rich patterns, elegant color and peculiar style, wax printed cloth is used to make costumes, trappings and various living utensils with primitive, unique, eye-catching and ethnic characteristics.

The history of batik can be traced back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD).   Batik used to be popular both in Central and Southwest China. Somehow the batik technique was lost in Central China, but it has been handed down from generation to generation among the ethnic people in Guizhou, a province in Southwest China. Nobody knows how batik was invented, but a folk tale about a batik girl tells us something about it. The story relates that long, long ago, there was a girl living in a stone village called Anshun, now a city in Guizhou Province. She was fond of dyeing white cloth blue and purple. One day, while she was working, a bee happened to alight on her cloth. After she took away the bee, she found there was a white dot left on the cloth, which looked very pretty. Her finding led to the use of wax in dyeing.

The traditional batik designs are often evenly and harmoniously distributed on both sides of the cloth. The overall effect is stressed instead of paying too much attention to the details. The design patterns are of rhythmical beauty since the lines and points are orderly arranged. . Apart from the traditional blue, there are many other colourful batik colours.  The peculiar batik ice line- or cracking- adds more charm to it and this cracking is characteristic of Chinese batik. The cracks occur when wax lines are destroyed in the constant rolling and dyeing of the cloth and the dye soaks into the lines of the cloth, leaving natural patterns on the cloth. The natural patterns are enchantingly beautiful. Like fingerprints of human beings, they are different from each other, which further augment the depth of its beauty.

Batik is used mostly in Chinese ethnic groups, here we will introduce batik in Miao and Chuang ethnic group.

Batik tie dye proces in Yunan China
Batik tie dye proces in Yunan China

Batik of the Chuang is mainly in the pattern of white flowers blooming on the blue cloth, which is elegant and in good taste. The craftsmanship is not so difficult, but requires a high level of expertise and technique. The raw materials used are mainly local special products, such as beeswax, white cloth, konjak, straw ash and indigo and so on. The procedures of producing the batik are to firstly bleach the white cloth using the straw ash; secondly, paste the back of the white cloth; thirdly, rubdown the white cloth on the board after it is dry; fourthly, cut down the needed cloth according to certain size; finally, paint colorful pictures freely on the surface of the cloth using the wax spatula dipped with wax (the wax should first melt in the container using charcoal). After being painted, the waxed cloth will be put into the indigo and dipped for several times and then put into the boiling water in order to remove the beeswax. And a batik textile will be finally worked out after the cloth is dry.

The traditional way to make batik textiles of the Miao nationality is to paint various pictures on pieces of white cloth of different sizes using the specific wax spatula, dipping the melted beeswax, dyeing the painted white cloth in the dye vet, then removing the beeswax from the dyed cloth in boiling water, rinsing the cloth in clean water and drying it in the sun. After all these procedures, the batik cloth will be finally finished.

Known as “laxie” in ancient times, batik printing is a time-honored craft in China. The traditional craft for batik printing has been spreading in some minority regions in Southwest China and has been inherited and carried forward in minority regions in Guizhou Province. By now, it has served as an indispensable art in the life of women in these regions. Trappings worn by them such as handkerchiefs, belly bands, clothes, skirts and leg wrappings are made by batik printing.  Batik printing, prevalent in different ethnic minorities in Guizhou Province, is provided with diversified features. For instance, wax printed patterns prevailing in the Miao ethnic group are of bronze drum patterns passed down from ancient times. Such patterns also take folk tales or commonly seen flowers, birds, insects and fish as the subject matter. In contrast, geometrical patterns are popular with Buyi ethnics. Indigo is used chiefly for the basic cloth throughout Guizo to give dark blues. A paste is made from the harvested plants which have been soaked in a wooden barrel.

Wax resisted fabric was probably one of the earliest forms of decoration in Guizhou as all the materials were at hand. Beeswax is the main ingredient but other resins or waxes are possibly added. The wax resist never exploits crackle- the aim is to produce a clear image and beeswax is both tenacious and flexible. The wax is often heated in a little pot, resting in hot embers.   Once applied, the wax appears dark on the fabric but at the end of the process the wax is removed from the fabric. The fabric is then rinsed in cool water and air dried. The beeswax can be reused.  The usual tools for applying wax,, tjantings, are of copper and made from brass with bamboo handles. They are made from two small triangular pieces of metal, their apexes bound to a bamboo holder by copper wire. It is held like a pen either upright or at a slant to the cloth which is laid flat on a board. This tool lends itself to the drawing of straight or slightly curving lines.

The Miao, Gejia and Bouyei girls are highly skilled at batik. They use very finely drawn circular and double spiral designs representing the horns of the water buffalo, symbolising their ancestors’ life and death. Girls start learning to produce batik from the age of 6 and 7 years. The finest work is found on baby carriers, sleeves of their jackets and skirts. The more traditional designs are geometric, where the most skilled wax resist reads as a fine blue line on a white ground. With the influence of the Han Chinese more figurative designs like flowers, birds and fish have been introduced over the centuries.

Chinese batik wall hangings are created using a multi-step process which brings to life the striking details of artwork found only in the ethnic minority settlements of China’s remote southwestern provinces. Chinese Batik is also called La Ran in China.  Some research suggests that Batik originates from ancient China. It was then called La Xie. As early as in Qin and Han Dynasties, people in southwestern minority regions of China, finding that wax can prevent areas of a cloth from taking dye, proficiently mastered the craft of batik. They used bees wax and worm wax as material in resist dyeing.

Having been handed down from generation to generation in minority regions in Southwest China, the art of batik printing has been endowed with peculiar artistic style and enjoys the fame of “ethnic artistic flower of distinctive Chinese features”. Currently, the primarily wax-printed products made by handicraftsmen and women have extended to the global market and display the unique enchantment of Chinese art.

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