Dong Brocade
Nian Ji
Tong Dao, Hunan
Heritage
Fabric Making

Just one week to go before Chinese New Year and we’re heading into a stiff wind, tramping through the mud at Tong Dao, Hu’nan, near the junction where Guangxi and Guizhou meet. We’re hoping to experience the Dong people’s happy celebration at this important festival time, and to touch the history behind the 2000-year-old Dong brocade which is famous in this region. On the way there is no laughter, no song in my heart however, as we pass the same grey buildings, the same leaden sky and monotonous road. Where is the Drum Tower, the Feng Yu bridge? Has the traditional beauty been entirely lost?

After six or seven hours of arduous searching we finally located Nian Ji, a renowned master of Dong brocade. I choked back tears as we greeted her. “Dong brocade is a generational skill that we cannot afford to lose,” she explained frankly. Time flies and Tong Dao’s development has perhaps been too fast. The galleried corridors and the stilted houses cannot be found. Today most of the farmers have been urbanised, but I was pleasantly surprised that Nian Ji’s dedication to her beloved brocade continues to grow and flourish.

“When I was twelve, my mum forced me to learn the skills of spinning, tapestry strips and brocade literally with her hands resting upon mine.  I had to learn more than a dozen processes but after I spent several years to master the techniques I became quite good at it. In the past, Dong brocade was a girl’s dowry. How much you made while with your mum’s family was how much you could take. Upon marriage, every girl had to have veils, scarves and other items to bring with her. Also you had to have plenty of the Dong brocade fabric, then you utilised that after the birth of your children to make baby clothes, blankets, baby carriers and so on. That’s why every girl upon reaching 14 or 15 years had to learn spinning, weaving and embroidery. By the time you reached 18 you had a good store. If you were not skilful it was hard to find a good husband,” she said, half serious, half smiling. At the same time she proudly pulled out her 100-year-old spinning machine to show us.

Sitting in front of the loom, dressed in her traditional costume, Nian Ji is still beautiful and generous. Her brocade is very smooth and delicate and her fame grew from her mastery of the most difficult yarns while she was still only a teen. The “eighty-eight” yarn is very complicated to master in weaving because the needle-work is tiny and very tight. When stroked it should feel compact and the colours precisely located. In the nearby village all the boys used this skill as a benchmark to measure the smartness of a girl.

Today she not only teaches the traditional black and white Sujin, but also the colourful Caijin brocade. She also integrates her own ideas from her observations to expand the repertoire. Topics include figures, flowers, fish, insects, the stars and moon, landscapes, pavilions, almost everything from the world around.

When she is weaving there is no break, but a constant flow of foot pressure, hand-throwing the shuttle and weaving non-stop, all the while moving the bamboo sticks to alter the design. Even though I do not know how to calculate the warp and weft, I cannot imagine how she remembers and programs every step by heart with no pattern to follow, but accurately and rapidly the beautiful fabric flows out. I can only hear the beating sound and imagine her mother-in-law secretly listening to ensure her daughter is diligently following the unwritten lore that “good men plough and women weave”. Through this Dong brocade the traditions, totems, luck and happiness of the Dong people live on.

click on a gallery item below to enlarge

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