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by Rick Green

Dyeing Indigo Cloth in a Rice Paddy, XindiAs we entered Zenchong village, a chorus of plinking could be heard emanating from a number of houses. Even though there appeared to be no conductor, the sounds gravitated to a natural rhythm. Occasionally they would fall out of tempo, but within a short time, the cadence would be regained and harmony restored.

It was a hot, sunny day, the kind where you feel every pore in your body has opened to breathe. The village women had retreated to the shade of their homes to find some relief from the afternoon heat. Relaxing in a hammock with a cool drink, however, would be unheard of for a Dong woman. There is always work to do. In this case, it was an opportunity to labour on finishing the distinctive cloth they produce for their traditional clothing.

The Dong people, an ethnic minority found in the mountainous region of Southwest China where Guangxi, Guizhou, and Hunan provinces converge, are renowned for their exquisite textiles. Subgroups are distinguished by stylistic differences in dress, but a common feature is the indigo-dyed cotton the women produce by hand via a time-consuming process that spans months. When visiting Dong villages, particularly outside of planting and harvest season, cloth production is often a prominent activity.

Closeup of Indigo Dye Tub, XiaohuangDong indigo cloth begins with the cultivation of cotton and dyer's knotweed (Polygonum tinctorum) in village fields. Once harvested, cotton must then be made into yarn, spun into thread, and woven into cloth. Indigo dye is produced by soaking dyer's knotweed leaves in water to extract indoxyl. Lime is then added to cause fermentation which exposes the indoxyl to oxidation, creating indigo as a precipitate. The liquid is then drained off, leaving a paste that is diluted when needed to make the dye.

There are different shades and grades of Dong indigo cloth that vary according to their use. The darker the fabric, the more times it needs to be dyed. This involves manually dipping a length of cotton material into a tub of indigo, rinsing it in water, then setting it out to dry. The cloth may be plain or patterned using the wax-resist method of batik. Once the desired colour is achieved, the way the fabric may be finished can vary from village to village. It may be further soaked in pig's blood or a mixture of pounded persimmon peels, chestnut shells and coral berries to add a red tinge.

The most precious Dong cloth is then coated with egg whites, folded and laboriously pounded on a stone slab with a heavy wooden mallet until a metallic-like sheen is produced. The plinking sound of pounding cloth on stone was the chorus that greeted us upon entering Zenchong. Some mallets are the size of a pick axe. It's truly an astonishing sight to see a slender, middle-aged Dong woman straining with her entire body to wield the tool's bulk. Try picking one of these up, and you will find an immediate respect for these hard-working women.

Colourfully-Dressed Dong Women, XijiangAt one time, the Dong people were isolated from the rest of China and, therefore, made all of their own clothing. Today, however, infrastructure development has opened this region to the outside and given the inhabitants access to machine-made clothing. This is what a growing number of Dong wear for everyday use, especially men and urban dwellers. The younger generation, working as migrant labourers in China's coastal factories, are now even brand-conscious. They have neither the time, nor inclination to learn the age-old techniques of producing textiles by hand.

It remains to be seen for how long these traditions will be preserved. Already the tedium of elaborate embroidery is being abandoned in favour of simpler designs, manufactured trim, and accents of synthetic material. Nevertheless, market days, festivals, and family celebrations in this region of Southwest China are still captivating, colourful affairs. Dong women are a sight to behold in their tight-fitting indigo trousers, decorated gaiters, pleated skirts, embroidered jackets and brocade aprons, embellished with heavy silver bracelets, chains, combs and hairpins. To call them fashionable is the least compliment one can pay.

Have an Adventure

You can still find authentic traditions of the Dong people being practiced today, but much will likely be lost with the passing of this generation unless it is financially viable for people maintain them. You can experience this time of transition by joining Adventurocity's Southwest China Cultural Minorities and Classical Landscapes tour. We visit a number of ethnic minorities in the region facing similar challenges. Our trip ends in Guilin District of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, famed for its mystical karst landscape and where we discover Yangshuo by wok and cleaver.

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