In my last post on the ethnic minorities of China (Hill Tribes of China), I described the luzhen as an instrument that makes a sound that stays with you for a long time. Well, another sound that one can hear in many villages of the Guizhou province has a similar lingering effect. It is the sound of the mallet used to pound indigo fabric.
In the relative downtime when there is no grain planting or harvesting to do, women from the Chinese minority groups turn to another demanding activity, the making of beautiful indigo fabric. As we walked into some of the local villages, we were greeted by a peculiar plinking sound coming from many houses. Peering into some of the houses revealed women, sometimes alone but more often in groups of two or three, pounding the bluish fabric repeatedly with a giant heavy mallet, creating strange music simultaneously.
But before the rhythmic pounding can be heard, a lot of work has to be done. The indigo dye used by these women is produced by soaking locally grown leaves to extract a substance that is then fermented into a paste. A fabric, often locally produced cotton, is dipped into the diluted paste several times depending on the desired shade of blue. The most valuable cloth is then “glazed” with egg whites, folded, and finally painstakingly pounded on a stone slab, over and over, until a metallic-like sheen appears. The final product is astonishingly beautiful. It shimmers and shines and is proudly worn by the locals, both men and women, though the best fabric is kept to be worn at festivals or ceremonies. Some of the material almost looks to me like it has a reddish or copper tone. When I asked why I was told that they sometimes further soak the fabric in pig’s blood or berries to add a reddish hue.
The following images are from a small isolated village inhabited by a subgroup of Miao called the “Black Miao of High Mountain.” The bluish tone of the women’s hands is an additional sign of the main activity in the village at this time of the year.
Although many minority groups are involved in the time-consuming process of producing indigo-dye fabric, the Dong is one of the groups that excel at it. The Dong villages are beautiful, with wooden stilt houses, a magnificent gate where the “blocking the way” ceremonies are held, and very tall racks to dry grains and granaries for storage. Walking in these villages is like walking in a town where everyone, young and old, buys their clothing at the same store. They all look great in various shades of indigo, and they produce music while making the fabric.
Enjoy the blues,
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