Liquidambar Oil-Dyed Items: 'Blue-and-White Porcelains Painted on Cloth'

 April 11, 2020

Liquidambar Oil-Dyed Items: 'Blue-and-White Porcelains Painted on Cloth'

Ran Guangjin (R) poses for a photo for advertising in Fengxiang batik clothing in Duyun City, SW China's Guizhou Province, May 6, 2019. [Xinhua/Yang Wenbin]


Huishui, a county in Southwest China's Guizhou Province, is commonly referred to as the "hometown of Buyi people's Liquidambar oil-dyed items." Given the items' ingenious, creative designs, many Chinese and foreign artists recognize the craft as an exquisite art form. Many artists refer to the items as "blue-and-white porcelains painted on cloth," as the artworks' patterns are like those on the porcelains. Ran Guangjin, a provincial-level inheritor of the craft, has made great contributions to the promotion of the traditional craft.

Liquidambar Oil-Dyed Items: 'Blue-and-White Porcelains Painted on Cloth'

Ran Guangjin (C) gives students instruction in Fengxiang batik painting techniques at her workshop in Duyun City, SW China's Guizhou Province, May 6, 2019. [Xinhua/Yang Wenbin]


To make a Liquidambar oil-dyed item, craftspeople must complete complicated procedures — including dipping paintbrushes in the oil, mixed with butter and the oil of Chinese Sweet Gum Trees (Liquidambar taiwaniana), drawing patterns on handwoven white cloth, soaking the item in water, using the sap of Indigowoad Root to dye the cloth, repeatedly rinsing in boiling water to remove the oil, stewing and drying the cloth in the sun — by hand.

Liquidambar Oil-Dyed Items: 'Blue-and-White Porcelains Painted on Cloth'
Ran Guangjin arranges the semifinished Fengxiang batik craftwork at her workshop in Duyun City, SW China's Guizhou Province, May 6, 2019. [Xinhua/Yang Wenbin]


Records indicate the craft of creating Huishui's oil-dyed items dates back more than 2,000 years. The craft originated during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), and the craft was at the height of its popularity during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). During the dynasty, the exquisite works of art were offered as tributes to members of the imperial families. In 2008, the craft of creating the Liquidambar oil-dyed items was added to the list of the country's national intangible cultural heritage.

Liquidambar Oil-Dyed Items: 'Blue-and-White Porcelains Painted on Cloth'

Ran Guangjin shows the batik clothes designed by herself at her workshop in Duyun City, SW China's Guizhou Province, May 6, 2019. [Xinhua/Yang Wenbin]


During the past two millennia, craftspeople have created numerous exquisite Liquidambar oil-dyed works, whose patterns vividly portray animals, plants, flowers and/or scenes. Various geometrical figures are common patterns on the works.

According to legend, a young woman, who lived in a Buyi village in Guizhou, wove cloth under an old Chinese Sweet Gum Tree on a clear day. Suddenly, drops of tree oil dipped on the cloth. The oil left marks on the cloth. She tried to remove the marks by dyeing the cloth indigo. To her surprise, the marks turned into white plum flowers after she washed her skirt with boiling water. As the woman's story was spread far and wide, many Buyi people considered the formation of the beautiful patterns (on the cloth) as an act of providence.

Ran, a native of Huishui, has devoted much effort to studying and saving the craft during the past several years. In September 2000, a short time after she graduated from the department of fine arts, under Qiannan Normal University for Nationalities (in Duyun, a city in Guizhou), Ran began teaching fine arts at Lushan (a town in Huishui) Middle School.

In 2015, Ran returned home to start her own business. Within two years, she established Guizhou Jinzhige Culture Development Co., Ltd., which is dedicated to promoting the sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle (of using Liquidambar oil-dyed items) among Buyi people, and to promoting their traditional culture. Ran experienced numerous difficulties and setbacks during the first year after she established Jinzhige. Despite the difficulties, she and her employees carried on.

When asked about her feelings about running the business, Ran said although she had a hard time rationally allocating manpower and financial resources, to promote the development of her enterprise, she believed all of her efforts had been worthwhile.

Ran and her employees wanted to use traditional methods to make Liquidambar oil-dyed items, in an effort to inherit the traditional cultural heritage, and to promote development of the traditional craft. So, Ran led her employees in visiting many elderly craftspeople (in Guizhou), to learn about the craft. They also watched the craftspeople stew Liquidambar oil. The process took more than 10 hours. Through repeated experiments, Ran and her employees eventually learned how to adjust the ratio of the oil and butter, so craftspeople could use the mixture to create patterns on cloth.

During the past few years, Ran has led her employees in blazing new trails as they have created Liquidambar oil-dyed items. They have put a lot of effort into creating various cultural products (including clothes, handbags and shoes) with modern, fashionable elements. The products are of high artistic and practical value.

Ran and her employees during the past several years have helped many rural Buyi women, in their hometown, escape poverty by creating Liquidambar oil-dyed items. To cultivate more craftswomen, so they can earn money by creating the items, and to promote the development of the traditional craft, Ran's company has established bases (in several of Huishui's villages) to provide training to rural women, to help them improve their craft-making skills. The bases collect the items created by the women, and process the products before selling them. The products have sold well in many regions of the country.

To display the artistic charm of Liquidambar oil-dyed works, Ran during the past few years has participated in many entrepreneurship competitions and professional skills contests. She has received awards during many competitions.

"I'm pleased to share information about my cultural projects with the viewers (during the competitions), from different segments of society," says Ran.

Last year, Ran's art project, "Blue-and-White Porcelains Painted on Dyed Cloth," were featured at the national craft competition hosted by the Guangzhou Young Star Federation. Ran was more excited when a judge said he was about to make a special tour to Guizhou, to see whether Ran's project was feasible, so he could decide whether he would invest capital in the project.

Ran during the past few years has provided training to primary and middle school students (in Guizhou), to teach them how to make Liquidambar oil-dyed items. In November 2018, the Women's Federation of Qiannan Buyi and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (in Guizhou) organized an activity, during which Ran and her employees led students of Dujun No. 8 Primary School in painting well-known scenic spots and landmark buildings (in Duyun) on a 10-meter cloth. Under Ran's guidance, the cloth became a Liquidambar oil-dyed artwork. Ran and her employees also took the children's advice and created figurines of the Chinese zodiac (the 12 animals, which represent the 12 Earthly Branches, and which symbolize the years in which people are born).

In Ran's eyes, the process of creating Liquidambar oil-dyed items is most beautiful. Why? Through the process, one may perceive harmony between humans and nature. To help visitors better understand Buyi people's wisdom and their traditional culture, Ran provides services, so children, who visit her education base of the craft of creating Liquidambar oil-dyed items, may create the items with craftspeople's help. The children are delighted to display their works in the base.

In addition, Ran and her employees have conducted various activities, to help children better understand the beauty of both their hometown and Buyi people's traditional culture. "I hope, through the activities, we will sow the seeds of the dream of promoting our traditional culture in the children's hearts. Someday, the seeds will take root and grow into luxuriant trees bearing rich fruit," says Ran.


(Women of China English Monthly February 2020 issue)


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