Fingerprints in Wax: Tracing the Touch of Women in China’s Batik
Contributor: Rushyan Yen
In the south western province of Guizhou, young girls become initiated into the ancient art of batik at the same time little girls in the West begin doodling with markers in pre-school classrooms. Through a combination of painting and dyeing, women in this region create stunning pieces of fabric. Over the course of a girl’s life, every new batik she makes marks a step in her journey to womanhood. The decorative textiles she makes becomes the dresses she wears as a child, her wedding gown as she becomes a bride, the baby carriers she uses in motherhood, and eventually perhaps even her own funeral shroud. Like fine wine, the flavour and style of a woman’s batik matures over time, so that the average woman eventually become a skilled artisan, developing her own particular technique and style. Thus the evolution of a girl’s batik reflects her physical and mental growth as she comes to know herself and gains womanly elegance and grace.
In addition to these individual stories, China’s batik tells yet another, deeper tale. The tale they tell is an intriguing account of how batik has shaped, maintained, and recreated many customs and traditions in China’s long history.
Although the art of batik has now spread around the world, it is thought to have originated in China during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD). Batik was initially popular in both Central and Southwest China, but eventually vanished from the mainstream culture in Central China. In the Southwest, however, the batik technique has been uniquely preserved and handed down from one generation to another—mostly among the Miao, Bouyei, and Gejia women of the Guizhou Province. Legend tells of a “batik girl” who lived long ago in the stone village of Anshun who came up with the technique of batik in a most serendipitous way. One day, as the girl was engaged in her favourite past-time of dyeing white cloth blue and purple, a bee happened to alight on her cloth. As the providential bee flew away, it left behind a drop of beeswax. When the girl finally dyed her cloth, the beeswax left behind a lovely white dot, marking the first batik fabric.
Traditionally, batik made in Guizhou undergo several complex and elaborate stages, including bleaching, waxing, painting, de-waxing, and rinsing. After the white cloth is bleached, it is placed on a plain board or tabletop. Wax is put into a pottery bowl or metal pot and heated with charcoal until it is melted. It is then applied with a special knife, made to hold melted wax in the hollow between two pieces of similarly-shaped metal. These batik knives can be semicircular, triangular, or axe-shaped, depending on the desired pattern. After wax application, the cloth is dipped in a vat of deep blue indigo dye for about 45 minutes, removed, and boiled in water to remove the wax. Finally, the cloth is rinsed with water, revealing the intricate blue and white patterns.
Traditional patterns of Chinese batik are geometrically intricate designs, reading as fine blue lines on a white ground. They are usually harmoniously and evenly distributed on all four corners, forming patterns of rhythmical beauty. A typical pattern is a display of white flowers blooming on an indigo blue backdrop. Other patterns can include delicate circular and double spiral designs, symbolizing the horns of the water buffalo, and concomitantly the life and death of each woman’s respective ancestors.
The materials used in the batik process point to the resourcefulness of the women who are involved in this craft. The cloth they use is typically a kind of local white cloth hand-woven from cotton, although floss silk or poplin is also used. The characteristic blue dye is made by fermenting the leaves of the “Lancao” or indigo plant, which grows wild and luxuriously in the Guizhou province.
The women of Guizhou have well preserved the traditional customs of batik, upholding the Chinese value of custom and tradition. The ancient designs and techniques can still be observed in south western China to this day. Yet the art of batik has by no means remained static. Over the centuries, new styles of batik have emerged, bringing more pictorial designs as well as colour to the traditional blue and white patterns. Designs like flowers, birds, and fish were introduced with the arrival and influence of the Han Chinese. At times, the drawings reflect the personal joys and sorrows of the woman who made them. In other cases, the drawings depict a story, immortalizing on cloth the legends and folktales of the region. Each ethnic group, in addition, has its own style of painting. In this way, painting became yet another important step in Chinese batik-making. A coloured batik can be made by painting the design before dying, or filling in the colour after it has been dyed. As with the traditional blue indigo, Guizhou women have continued to experiment with natural dyes—finding, for example, that waxberry juice produces a vibrant red colour, and gardenia, a luminous yellow.
Overlying the intricate patterns, drawings, and colours of a batik are fine lines of lighter colour called “ice veins”, which are reminiscent of ripples of water, or crackles in ice. These enchanting patterns appear naturally in the batik-making process: As the wax hardens, it cracks in unpredictable ways, allowing the dyes to seep into the cracks during dying. Like fingerprints of human beings, “ice veins” on a batik piece can never form in exactly the same way. One recognizes a genuine batik from an imitation by its uniqueness. Western industrialization would be hard-pressed to replace batik artisans with machines.
The story of China’s batik is very much the story of its women: Despite the hardships of rural life, the difficulties of marriage and childbirth, and the demands and constraints of a patriarchal society, women in Guizhou continue to use batiks to colour a world which can sometimes appear bleak and grey. Via a pencil of wax, Chinese women have written their stories on cloth, and preserved many of China’s great stories and traditions. Like the unique “ice veins” on their work, batik has allowed women to leave a subtle yet enchantingly beautiful and enduring fingerprint in Chinese history and culture.