Embroidery traditions thrive in central china
In the past, young girls in China had to learn needlework at a very early age because the abilitywas seen as the key to finding a good husband.
In most parts of the country, it seems the tradition has gone the way of the dinosaur, but in theremote areas of China's Hunan province, the tradition is still alive.
Ethnic peoples, such as the Tujia, the Miao, the Dong and the Yao, have dwelled in the westand south of Hunan for many generations. They have created several renowned textile craftsthat are regarded as treasures of traditional Chinese culture.
For instance, there is a branch of the Yao ethnic group called Huayao - or "Flowery Yao" -because they are known for their special and colorful clothes as well as outstanding crossstitch embroidery.
In a Huayao village located at the foot of amountain in southwest Hunan, cross-stitchembroidery is still the most important skill forwomen.
"Normally from the age of 7 or 8, a Huayao girlhas to learn counting threads, using needlesand gradually grasping the cross-stitchembroidery techniques under the instruction ofher mother or sisters," said Feng Xuemei, aninheritor of the Huayao cross-stitch embroiderycraft.
Unlike machine-aided embroidery, the cross-stitch technique does not require a draft designor embroidery frame but only hands and skills.
Huayao women follow the veins of the hand-woven cloth and make embroidery according toa picture in their mind.
The women always carry their needles andembroidery work with them so that they canmake cross-stitch whenever they have time.
They are often seen with their needles and clothin front of a diaojiaolou, a wood-structuredhouse over the water, on a stone near a brookor in the forests.
The hand-woven cloth in plain colors of blue,white or gray becomes art with aid from theneedles of the Huayao women. Images offlowers, Mandarin ducks, golden sunsets andrainbows transform plain cloth into somethingextraordinary.
These are then made into scarves, cloaks, belts,skirt lace and underwear.
Women from the Miao and the Dong add even more romantic elements to their craftsmanship.
They not only make clothes for family members but also bed covers, handkerchiefs and pillows.
They even weave flower belts using colorful threads as tokens of affection
Pursuit of beauty
"The Miao ladies are passionate and have a love of beauty. However in past periods ofscarcity, they had to make every effort to make adornments by hand and make themselves lookbetter," said Wu Jinglian, the only inheritor of the tie-dye technique in the county ofFenghuang.
"The pursuit of beautiful things is just one reason for the prosperity of ethnic embroidery," saidSun Wenhui, member of the Hunan intangible cultural heritage expert committee.
"The origin of the ethnic groups' colorful and picturesque clothing started with the demands ofoffering sacrifices during the long-past totem worship period."
For example, animal imagery is another important theme of the Huayao's cross-stitch work. Thesnake is one of the most widely used images.
Dwelling in deep forests where snakes usually appear, the Huayao people worship this animalbecause they find that it has many skills that human beings lack.
Huayao's worship of snakes is similar to the Han people's worship of dragons, experts say.
The brocade used by the Dong people for sacrifice has the images of their totems, including alegendary creature that looks like a mixture of a dog and
Brocade also plays an important part in the Tujia people's sacrificial ceremonies. Ever since theShang Dynasty (1600 BC-1100 BC), the Tujia people have used delicate brocade to decorateshrines. They also wear brocade handiwork for their traditional dances.
The folk crafts are more than just techniques for making useful items. They also tell the storiesof ancient civilizations.
And the Tujia brocade also plays a very important role in people's daily lives.
Once a Tujia baby is born, the grandmother will give him or her a piece of brocade as apresent. The infants will use bed covers made by brocade.
The Tujia girls learn the brocade skills and when they get married, their parents and relativeswill give them brocade as a dowry. The more brocade bed covers a bride gets from her family,the more distinguished she is.
The color of the brocade changes with occasions, too. Brocade silently records the Tujiapeople's customs and lifestyles.
Developing with times
Among these traditional textile crafts in Hunan,the most renowned form is clled Xiangxiu, orHunan embroidery, one of China's four majorembroidery forms. An art belonging to the Hanpeople, it is perhaps the one that best followsthe time and caters to market demands.
The art form comes from daily life and changeswith the times, enabling Xiangxiu embroidery tosurvive and develop in the modern era, expertssay.
The Shaping township in the suburbs ofChangsha, Hunan's capital, is the cradle ofXiangxiu.
Embroidery is so popular there that locals say"every family has an embroider, and everyvillage has an expert."
However, contemporary Xiangxiu has taken onsome modern elements and become morefashionable and vivid.
In the past, the Xiangxiu used threads insteadof pens to record history. Today, on the basisof traditional skills, the embroidery incorporatesskills from traditional Chinese painting andcalligraphy.
Besides, the embroidery is better mounted andpackaged to cater to market demands.
Compared to Shaping township, traditions arebetter preserved in the Miao and Tujia villagesin the mountainous areas of western Hunanbecause these places are relatively moreisolated from modern civilization.
Some elderly people still use bed covers made of traditionally tie-dyed fabrics. Old wedding andfestival customs related to traditional embroidery are also kept.
However, since the traditional techniques require a very comprehensive set of skills that notmany people master, just a few are preserved till now.
Now governments at all levels have realized the cultural importance of the traditional craft andare already working toward its preservation.
Several textile arts have been listed among the country's intangible cultural heritages.
In 2006, Xiangxiu embroidery, Huayao cross-stitch embroidery and Tujia brocade entered thecountry's first State-level list of intangible cultural heritage.
In 2008, the Dong brocade, the Miao cross-stitch embroidery and the Miao embroidery wereplaced on the second State-level intangible cultural heritage list.
Besides embroideries, some local traditional clothing has become intangible cultural treasures,too. One of them is the Miao dress and personal adornment, which are known for their variablekinds and styles as well as delicate craftsmanship.
Despite protection, some techniques, especially embroidery, are still faced with extinction, saidXiao Lingzhi, deputy chief of Hunan's provincial department of culture.
"Now fewer and fewer young people are willing to learn traditional skills and techniques," Xiaosaid.
Xiao called on the young people to learn traditional folk techniques and pass down thesecultural heritages to more generations in the future.
The inland province of Hunan is home to a number of ethnic groups, who have togethercreated 99 State-level and 220 provincial-level intangible cultural heritage items, according tothe provincial cultural department.