Batik, an integral part of Miao ancient culture and history

For many people, batik, wax-resist dyeing of cloth, is merely a craft. But, for the ethnic Miao, batik is an integral part of their ancient culture and history.

For many people, batik, wax-resist dyeing of cloth, is merely a craft. But, for the ethnic Miao people, living in southwest China’s Guizhou Province, batik is an integral part of their ancient culture and history.

The Miao people, one of the most ancient nationalities in China, originated in the central plain areas along the Yellow River more than 5,000 years ago and began to master the batik fabric-making techniques during the early years of the Han Dynasty (220 BC-AD 202).

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The contemporary batik is more sophisticated than traditional creations. Miao women and batik artists have now begun to use new techniques, tools and wax recipes with different resist values to create more attractive batik products.

The Miao people even have an old folk song describing the origin of batik, which they still sing today.

The song tells a story about a beautiful young Miao girl in ancient times, who loved nature, flowers and the mountains where she and her family lived. But she didn’t like the single-colored clothes people wore back then.

She originally tried to paint some fabric to change this but failed, which made her depressed. But one day she had an epiphany after a dream. In the dream, she saw a flower fairy wearing a colorful dress coming to greet her. 

The fairy took the girl into a garden where she saw all kinds of exotic flowers, birds, butterflies and bees. The bees landed on her light blue skirt and, as the girl woke up, she found some honey spots and wax on her skirt.

When the girl returned home she threw her skirt into a blue dyeing vessel to remove the stains. After two attempts the stain was gone but it took another hot wash to get rid of the beeswax. And on that third wash the beautiful flower patterns she saw in her dream appeared in place of the wax.

She was so amazed that she decided to repeat the process of waxing and dyeing on other fabrics. And this is where the legend of Miao batik was born.

Among the Miao people, batik is seen as a woman’s craft and it has been passed down from mothers to daughters for generations. The Miao women made and created batik patterns and motifs to reflect their nature and life.

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The usual tool for applying the wax on the fabric is a homemade ladao or knife-like instrument. They are made from two triangular pieces of metal tied to a pencil-like bamboo handle with copper wires.

Visual language

Since the Miao people don’t have their own written language, those batik patterns have become an essential visual language that tells their cultural, religious and historical story to the outside world.

The process of making batik is rather elaborate. First, you need to wash a piece of white cloth or fabric in water mixed with plant ash in order to remove any lipid in them, so it becomes easier to wax and dye.

Then you would need to prepare the beeswax by melting it in a small porcelain bowl resting on hot embers.

The usual tool for applying the wax on the fabric is a homemade ladao or knife-like instrument. They are made from two triangular pieces of metal tied to a pencil-like bamboo handle with copper wires.

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To create patterns or drawings on the white cloth, The Miao women scribe it on in freehand without any sketches.

To create patterns or drawings on the white cloth, The Miao women scribe it on in freehand without any sketches. Furthermore they don’t use rulers or compasses to design geometric patterns, such as squares, circles, triangles or straight lines. Instead, they just fold the fabric in various ways, bundle it in whole or in parts, before dipping it in melted beeswax.

Under the influence of the Han people, the Miao women began to draw figurative and symbolic patterns such as flowers, fish, birds, insects and farm animals. 

In drawing, they dip ladao in melted beeswax and use either dotted or solid lines to outline the figures.

After the wax drawing, the cloth is thrown into a dyeing jar with indigo. Widely available in the mountainous areas where the Miao people live, indigo is a color that could be dyed in cold water while most other colors, such as red and yellow, could be dyed only in hot water, in which wax would melt right away before the fabrics are dyed. That’s why most batik fabric materials are blue and white.

After dyeing, the fabrics are put into boiling hot water to remove the beeswax. Once the wax has gone, beautiful patterns will appear in places, which are covered by the wax. The fabrics are then rinsed and air-dried. The process is repeated a few times to create more complicated and subtle patterns.

Today, Miao batik fabrics are favorite souvenirs for both Chinese and overseas tourists in the country. In 2006, the technique of making the Miao people’s batik fabrics was inscribed on China’s first list of national intangible cultural heritages.

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