By Diana Chen
Diana Chen is an artist, educator, and art critic, who was born in Guizhou, China. She received her Master’s degree in Art and Art Education from Columbia University, and currently works as a lecturer at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her art practice is based in contemporary batik making. In the past, she has done many works related to batik, such as publications, exhibitions, and lectures.
Traditional batik textile from Guizhou, China
Batik is one of the oldest textile art forms in the world. Its specific time of origin has not been determined. However, the written record about batik craftsmanship was found to be as early as two thousand years old. Batik was first made by a group of ethnic minority called Miao. Originally from over five thousand years ago, Miao is the most ancient nationality in China. Some parts of Miao group migrated southward into Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, where they are known as Hmong.
As a result of these large-scale migrations over many centuries, Miao eventually settled in Southwest China, Guizhou province. Because of the geographical landscape of Guizhou, it is very difficult for this group to connect to the outside world. They are entirely isolated, and thus batik has never been influenced by other cultures. Therefore, batik has remained its original style as it was two thousand years ago. Meanwhile, Miao people do not have their own written language. Thus, the only way to read the history of the group is by their art in textile that demonstrates their way of living, emotions and feelings. It became a kind of visual art that can be read, and such poetic visual language blurred the traditional boundaries between literature and art.
Batik simply refers to the skill that uses wax to prevent and dye indigo on fabric, and then produces batik patterns with blue and white color after dying. This wax-resist dyeing technique offers immense possibilities for artistic freedom as patterns are applied by actual drawing rather than by weaving or knitting. Another fact is that, the materials to make batik are all natural and hand made, including fabric, bee wax, ladao (knife-like tool), and indigo dye. Miao people consider these materials as a gift from earth.
Miao batik echoes with writing, with calligraphy, as there are only two colors on fabric, blue and white. The color of simplicity also coincident with blue and white porcelain, the most elegant antique art in China. To make such extraordinary textile, simplicity is the most powerful form. Moreover, The dyeing principle of batik connects to the ancient Chinese yin-yang theory, which describes how opposite forces are actually complementary. Batik reflects the Oriental philosophy of Miao ancestors, and also brings mysterious oriental features. Although it is flat, there is a sense of movement and motion, and a sense of order and rhythm.
Batiks nowadays are in a position where we view them as artifacts and are presented as paintings, but in reality they served a practical purpose. They are festive dresses, beddings, and baby-carrying sashes. It is an indicator of family wealth, and belonging to a specific group. There is a saying, “When you meet one hundred Miao people, you will see one hundred types of traditional costumes”.1
Batik is women’s art. Miao society is a typical agrarian society. Textile making has been seen as women’s work. Men, on the other hand, are responsible for farming. Miao women represent their gender, emotion and ethnic group through art. This art is the most effective way to establish and express their gender role in the Miao society. Batik is a skill that nearly every woman in that society is expected to master, and it also became the standard of being a “good” woman.2 Furthermore, the unique art has brought subtle changes to the social status of the Miao women. Fifty years ago, men were the main source of household income. Thus, the social status of women is much lower than men. But today, due to the development of tourism, batik can be sold as souvenirs. The women’s art became part of the family’s incomes, and even some women are the main and only source of family income. Therefore, the status of Miao women has gradually increased. More importantly, we view batik so that we can read the history of Miao through the perspective of traditional women, and we view it as women’s writing. Batik often reveals a sense of caring, as a story that mothers tells to their children. Even though Miao has experienced countless difficulties, the story has no dark side, no complaints, but rather is full of gratitude, wishes, and ideals of aspirations.
More recently, the craft has begun to gradually disappear. This is because contemporary Miao women are occupied by outside work so that they do not have time to make batik. In addition, culture integration has affected the demand for traditional textiles: nowadays Miao mainly wear Western-style clothing, and only wear costumes for festivals.3
- Torimaru, S., Torimaru, T. (2010). Imprints on cloth: 18 years of field research among the Miao people of Guizhou, China. Japan: The Nishinippon Newspaper Co.
- Ye, Y. (2013). Embroidery, gender and self-representation of the Miao women in the Southeast of Guizhou. Journal of Cambridge Studies, 8(3-4). 19-32.
- World Textiles: A Sourcebook. (2012). Northampton, MA: Interlink Books.