Weaving and Clothing
By Stéphane Gros
When one enters the Dulong river valley, especially in Kongdang, where an increasing number of people from outside the valley now live, one generally cannot rely on the dress of the people to distinguish the Dulongs from the other ethnic groups. The large majority of Dulong people now wear Chinese garments, the most common outfit being the military fashion they can buy in the shops of the valley itself. Most of the time, children go around in second-hand clothes, often too large for them, distributed for free by the schools.
This is not to say that Dulong people do not have their own traditional clothing. But for the men, for example, only the puttees remain in common use. They rarely go out without wearing a pair, especially for a hunting party or a long journey. The traditional striped cloth is now only occasionally worn, and its utility is often reduced to a secondary use as a blanket and baby-carrier or swaddling clothes.
Even so, weaving is not a forgotten technique, and girls still learn how to weave during their teen-age years. Definitely a well-woven cloth is the best present one could offer to a good friend or a guest of distinction.
Dulong people use a kind of wild ramie (similar to hemp), the fibers of which are very strong. The cutting of the plants, which are found in the mountains, is the task of the men. But the long process of transformation is a specific feminine activity. Once the stems are decorticated and dried, the threads are made manually. Then they need to be boiled in hot water with ashes, and washed several times, and beaten with a wooden paddle to make them supple and to get rid of the remaining skin. Under the verandah, or more generally on a temporary altar, the threads are left outside in the sunlight until they are dry.
Threads of natural fiber left outside to dry after having been boiled and washed.
The long threads are wound into balls, and the making of a sufficient number of threads to weave a piece of cloth can take more than a month. It is usually done during the evenings, while sitting by the fireplace. It was formerly common to dye the threads using natural hues. For example, the red color was obtained from the bark of the alder tree, cut and ground, with which the threads were boiled. Roots of the walnut tree would be used to make a black dye. Though the dyeing process is still remembered, it is now abandoned and one would hardly be able to find any of these dyed cloths. For the making of the colorful vertical stripes, women now commonly use cotton threads they can buy in the shops. Therefore, all kinds of colors can be chosen, and each woman decides on a personal set of colors. When all the threads are ready, the warp is composed on the ground by unwinding the threads, following wooden and bamboo pieces stuck in the ground in a particular order. The arrangement of these small sticks is, of course, not arbitrary, and most of them are elements of the weaving loom itself.
The threads, with an alternation of colors, are arranged in a continuous unwinding. They follow a succession of sticks, are rolled around some of them which are the constitutive parts of the loom, in order to realize the warp and correctly arrange its two levels.
Preparation of the woof before weaving.
Weaving usually takes place in late autumn and winter, when women are free from other activities. Depending on how much time they spend on it each day, a piece of cloth can be finished in ten days, or may take up to a month. The piece of cloth is usually around three meters long and half a meter wide. This long piece of cloth will then be cut in its middle and sewed to obtain a blanket of convenient size. The puttees are around a meter long each and thirty centimeters wide. They are generally all white with borders decorated by a narrow colored line.
Traditional blankets are composed of vertical stripes of different colors in alternation with large spaces of white thread. Some blankets, not used for clothing, are woven in raw natural white threads without any color. On the other hand, less and less women make use of the natural fiber which was formerly the only one available, and weave their cloth exclusively with the cotton or even the wool threads they buy in the shops.
Outside, under the verandah or by the house, women spend a lot of their time during the winter weaving new blankets.
In the past, when the Dulong people in the northern part of the valley were performing the New Year’s ritual, the women of each household had to prepare as many new pieces of cloth as possible for the ritual. Each man of the household had to wear a clean cloth during the ritual, and the brand new cloths were used to make the ritual flags, the offerings for the mountain deity (see new year flags). Making many of them would secure this deity’s protection and dispensation of cereals and wild animals. As fewer rituals are performed nowadays, the traditional fabric has lost its ritual uses. Also, cloth and blankets of Chinese make are sometimes used for these same purposes.
The patterns of the Dulong fabrics show great variation today, due to the increasing use of cotton threads. Although always composed of vertical stripes, the common central pattern made of an alternation of white and colored stripes has been disappearing.
Some Dulong cloth patterns.
The most common pattern for Dulong cloth is to have a central part made of three colored stripes each separated by a total of four large white stripes. On each side of this central pattern is a succession of thin lines of different colors.
This pattern is not always followed, and women often choose freely other arrangement for the colors, the width and the recurrence of the stripes. There are different ways of wearing the traditional cloth. The most common fashion is to tie the two extremities on one shoulder, leaving one arm outside. Women usually wear two pieces, each tied on a different shoulder; it is then equivalent to a long dress that falls to about the knees. This can also be worn by men, but men normally fold the piece of cloth in two, and it will only fall down to their waist. When tied, the upper part can be folded again a bit into a lapel which can be used as a pocket. But men often dress another way by taking the piece of cloth in its length, wrapping it round the chest and tying up one corner of each extremity on each shoulder.
Different ways of wearing the Dulong cloth.
As is the case for each of the minorities in China, the Dulong cloth is considered a symbol of their ethnic identity. On many occasions, such as on national day and during other national or province level occasions where there are performances with dancing and singing, China's minority nationalities are represented in their “traditional costumes”. These costumes are often the result of several design transformations that make them in conformity with a national aesthetic standard. In the same way, the Dulong clothing has been “improved”, and a new model has been created for the women, the cloth sewed into a skirt and a separate top. It is also common in books or magazines articles about the Dulong to see everybody wearing the “traditional” outfit, as requested by the photographer. Dulong people are themselves very conscious that wearing the Dulong woven cloth makes them more Dulong to the eyes of the visitor. As a vehicle for expressing one identity, the cloth is bestowed with a more symbolic than functional role.
Being Dulong, a matter of clothing?
The young man on the left said: “I am Tibetan on top, Dulong in the middle, and Chinese on the bottom!”
Dulong women are very proud of their craft, and a nice piece of cloth can be given as a token of love. This is quite usual with the puttees, and a girl will make herself understood if she offers a pair to the one she loves. Although much of the symbolic meaning of the cloth and its patterns seems to be forgotten, women often point out the relationship of the vertical stripes with the colors of the rainbow. On the other hand, and besides the fact that the cloth itself is a key element of ritual offerings (the flags), the metaphor of the cloth is sometimes used during rituals to express the link between earth and sky, and humans and spirits. It is said that the spirit who receives the heavy smoke of the fumigation which rises up in the sky rolls it up like a cloth. This is an example that gives possible evidence of the important role women, often staying in the background, play in both the social and religious sphere.