Life, love, sorrow, all distilled in magic of Zhuang brocade

(China Daily)

Updated: 2019-01-11

After a harrowing breakup with her boyfriend in 2017, Fan Lihua decided not to wallow in sorrow, but instead created three wedding dresses for herself.

Faithful to the traditions of Zhuang brocade - the wonderful textile handicraft produced in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region that originated centuries ago - the 24-year-old designer dotted her wedding gowns with symbols of love and marriage, like flowers for longevity and mandarin ducks. The ornate dresses have not helped win back Fan's loved one, but instead scooped her a gold award in an arts and crafts competition for the inventive and ingenious use of ancient textiles.

Now recalling her "unfailing romance" with Zhuang brocade, Fan, from South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, said she hopes to make more people fall in love with this ancient art form.

"My goal is to take Zhuang brocade out of Guangxi, and beyond China, to make it known to more people," Fan said.

Zhuang brocade has adorned the quilts and straps of the Zhuang people, the most populous ethnic group in China, for more than 2,000 years. Now, a new generation of designers is trying to introduce these designs to wedding dresses and daily clothing.

Though not an ethnic Zhuang, Fan has developed a passion for the ethnic craft since childhood. When participating in a college exhibition as an apparel design major, Fan came up with garments imbued with Zhuang brocade elements, which caught the attention of Tan Xiangguang, a renowned Zhuang brocade artist.

"Though Fan did not display a profound understanding of Zhuang brocade back then, she really inspired me by bringing the brocade into daily clothing," said Tan, a retired professor who runs a program to promote the Zhuang brocade culture.


Fan Lihua (right), a designer, learns to weave Zhanjiang brocade on a traditional machine under the guidance of Tan Xiangguang, a renowned Zhuang brocade master. [Photo Lu Bo'an/Xinhua]

With Tan's support, Fan opened a studio with a secondhand sewing machine soon after her college graduation in 2016. Her business had a rough start, cooperating with some less-known ethnic-style brands, but Fan still considered herself lucky compared with previous generations of artisans.

"In the 1980s, Professor Tan had to work in a garment factory to make ends meet, but now I can devote myself fully to the art that I love. Financial burdens are not really a big problem," she said.

Fan is now focusing on waistcoats, which she said may be a new frontier for Zhuang brocade.

"Most garments can only use a few Zhuang brocade patterns as decoration, because of its hardened texture, but this is exactly what a waistcoat needs," Fan said. "The repetitive rectangle patterns of Zhuang brocade also makes a waistcoat look more tasteful."

Her other creations also raised interest with both online and with bricks-and-mortar shops, for designs for handbags, document pouches and iPad shells - all lent a lively ethnic flavor by the Zhuang brocade patterns.

Fan said she was still doing quantitative and qualitative analysis of Zhuang brocade, which currently lacked a sufficient wide range of products to become a brand.

In 2006, China nominated Zhuang brocade among the country's first list of intangible cultural heritage, in a bid to ensure its survival. Like many other traditional arts and crafts, passing on its secrets to future generations is facing a challenge due to a shrinking pool of exponents.

"Youngsters with fine arts and design backgrounds are increasingly needed by the traditional cultures, as the latter struggle to find modern expression," said Liang Liang, who heads the culture and creativity products department of the Anthropology Museum of Guangxi.

But with scarcity comes opportunities. Liang said cultural and creative products have great potential, especially in Guangxi, a region heavily inhabited by ethnic minorities.

Fan is also optimistic about her life and career, now deeply intertwined with the fortunes of Zhuang brocade.

"The day I debuted my Zhuang brocade wedding dresses, I was surrounded by my family, friends and classmates who came to congratulate me," she recalled.

"It was just like my sister's wedding. I wish that I will be dressed in them when I marry the one I love."