Home to a Dong ethnic tribe whose local history can be traced back to the early Ming dynasty approximately 600 years ago, Dali, its culture, and the daily life within it have come to be dramatically shaped by a plant that can be found abundantly in this little-known corner of the world.
After scaling up steep mountain switchbacks, the first glimpse of the village provides some notable clues: glimmering deep purple cloth hangs from many of the windows of the distinctive timber homes on stilts, built in the chuan dou-style architecture. In and around the drum tower, a traditional site for collective decision-making that is the tallest structure in Dali, large buckets of indigo leaves slowly ferment.
“It’s a classic Dong village set up,” says Kuanghan Li, the China program director of the Global Heritage Fund, a preservation organization based in California that began working with local officials in 2011. “It’s exactly how they would have described a Dong village 1,000 years ago in ancient Chinese texts.”
Those texts would have described the Dong’s spoken language and its ethereal style of chorus singing, but also key Dong landmarks found in Dali like the public plaza, the wooden “Wind and Rain” bridge, meant to shelter villagers in bad weather, and the Sax altar, a metaphysical home of the grandmother goddess who holds in her spirit the past, present, and future fate of the village.
But it is the cultivation of indigo that is the common thread running through Dali life. Dong women, like Yang Bimeng, have for centuries carried on the tradition of harvesting indigo leaves from the surrounding verdant hillsides and painstakingly turning them into a paste, later dyeing them into handmade cotton fabrics and weaving them into stunning indigo textiles.
“At 13, I learned how to dye cloth and weave cloth—basically, everything about indigo,” says the 46-year-old Bimeng, a Dali native. “For us Dong people, this is kind of part of our culture. Even if you leave and live and work somewhere else for 10, 20 years, and then come back home, you’re still Dong.”
In China, tie-dyeing dates back more than 1,500 years, and these techniques have been passed from mother to daughter over generations. Bimeng was taught the skills by her grandmother, an expert in cotton cultivation and weaving, and she, in turn, is passing on the knowledge to her own daughter. The ancient indigo handcraft has helped to financially and socially empower the local women for centuries, with men not allowed into the process, or to even touch indigo dye.
“Each generation teaches the skills to the next generation,” adds Bimeng. “This is stuff that has been passed down in our families from the past. From old times. If you don’t learn it, then you forget, and it stops being practiced.”
Every woman is involved in the lengthy process in some way. First, the indigo seeds must be planted and harvested at a specific time of the year, and then the leaves are fermented in a dye bath, which works on a yearly cycle. Almost every woman in Dali has one, and they must be placed in the house according to the principles of feng shui. But only older women make the cotton, which is grown, picked, and then weaved or embroidered. The cloth must be dyed with the thick, mud-like indigo paste at certain times of year, when weather conditions are optimal, and dried in the sun. It can take up to two years to make the prized glossy cloth.
In Dali, they beat the fabrics with a hammer so it develops a low sheen and becomes stiff like leather. In some cases, shamanistic beliefs are involved in the process, as are curious ingredients like buffalo fat, rice wine, pig’s blood, and chicken eggs.
“I started learning to make indigo cloth with my mom when I was about 15,” says Xianshu Yang, a 53-year-old from Dali. “Now, I don’t think it’s hard to do. The most important thing about indigo is to take care of it, keep it clean, and put it in a place where it can be protected well and kept in the shade. That’s what I learned over the years.”
Because of the difficult-to-traverse, mountainous geography of Guizhou, which has historically made it tricky to install transportation infrastructure, the unique cultures of the region have so far been preserved—even as most of the rest of China has undergone unprecedented modernization.
“The reason these cultures could stay intact was because of their geographic isolation,” says Catherine McMahon of Atlas Studio, a Beijing-based design studio that set up a weaving and dyeing cooperative in Dali. “You’re at the top of this mountain and it opens up to a valley. It’s quite magical.”
But change is coming to the region, marked by limestone karst landscapes and famed sour and spicy food. Freshly-built roads and a newly inaugurated high-speed rail line—including a station at Rongjiang, a township just outside of Dali—mean that the area is set to open up to the wider world. China’s economic growth is at the same time causing young people to abandon the villages and their traditions in favor of cities and modern living.
It can take up to two years to make the prized glossy cloth.
For the inhabitants of Dali, where a piece of clothing is for life, the idea of fast fashion is an existential threat. The long-term view of life is so profound that when a Dong mother gives birth to a daughter she calculates how many years she will have to produce enough indigo for the eventual wedding.
A local saying goes, “Dong cloth is a way of life,” in reference to the fact that it takes at least two people to thread a loom, and that these indigo processes constitute quite literally the social fabric. At times boldly azure, with an iridescent purple sheen, Dali’s beautiful shade of deep blue indigo—imbued with ancient knowledge—can’t be imitated.
“It’s like how Yves Klein painted directly with blue pigment,” says McMahon. “If it’s not real indigo, if it’s a chemical version, then it doesn’t have the same depth and layer. The blue is on a plane of its own.”