The Blue Women of China of the Yao minority

ethnic china

The Blue Women of China of the Yao minority

Many people have heard of the Blue Men of the Sahara (the Tuareg), but few have heard of the Blue Women of China. And in fact among the women of the so-called Landian Yao or Landen Yao outside China, the production, dyeing and making of clothes with indigo blue has so much cultural importance that we could well call them the Blue Women of China, and in fact, the Chinese name 蓝靛瑶 is just that, because «lan 蓝» means «blue», «dian 靛» «indigo» and the two characters together form the word for «indigo», both the plant and the blue color it gives to the dye.

Therefore the appropriate translation to the name given by the Chinese, would be the Indigo Yao or the Blue Yao, although some prefer to translate it as the Blue Clothes Yao. They call themselves mun or jinmun. Mun is the form they take for the Chinese character «人 ren» person. In other words, they consider themselves «the people».  This Mun branch is the second most important branch of the Yao, after the Iu Mien branch, with whom they share many cultural characteristics and linguistic similarities, so when someone reads about Yao culture in general, they are likely to be reading about the Blue Yao.

This name given to them by the Chinese is by no means unwarranted, because indigo is a central part of their culture, and their identity. It is easy to recognize the communities of the Blue Yao because most of its members, even the young, still wear their traditional blue cotton clothes (Gujadhur 2017: 37).

Two words about their economy

The Blue Yao used to cultivate by means of slash-and-burn agriculture, growing rice and corn varieties adapted to the mountains and dry lands, as they generally inhabit an altitude of 800 to 1500 m. These higher elevation areas are also suitable for the growth of several species of plants that produced indigo. In fact, textile production activities were an essential part of the traditional economy of the Blue Yao. They have had a long history of growing indigo plants, processing them as dye and dyeing the traditional cotton fabrics themselves. These fabrics and their traditional clothing were for a long time the main product that the Blue Yao traded with the surrounding people. (Li 2019)

Their religious beliefs

The Blue Yao practice an ancient form of Taoism on a Confucianist substrate, all mixed with ancestor and spirit worship. Religion is always present in the main aspects of their lives, and they devote much of their time and resources to performing religious activities and ceremonies that give them material rewards in this life and the hope of heavenly serenity in the next. Their elaborate rituals require ceremonial books and paintings, many of them beautifully crafted, which still reflect ancient Taoist traditions that have disappeared in China (Gujadhur 2017: 37).

Their paintings, placed on the world market by the intermediaries of Hong Kong and Bangkok, attracted the attention of collectors in the West because of the complexity of their compositions and the simplicity of their lines, bringing to the 20th century concepts that remained dormant in the history books. With them, the Blue Yao became famous in certain Western cultural circles.

Their religious system is dominated by men, who are trained and initiated to become «Shamanic Healers», «Priests» or «Masters». These figures become a bridge between the physical and the transcendental world, as they possess the abilities to communicate with ancestors and deities, and to cure «spiritual diseases». Their elaborate ceremonies include the use of ritual tools such as costumes, masks, magic seals and mainly ancient manuscripts and sacred texts written in Chinese characters on bamboo paper handmade by women (Mirenda).

Traditional blue textiles are very important in religious ceremonies. «Each man of the Blue Yao must have a religious ritual called «dujie» when he becomes an adult. In the ritual, he must prepare a new traditional dress and cannot wear old clothes, because «dujie» symbolizes the new beginning. The «Pan Wang Festival» is held annually after the harvest, and which links them to their ancestor King Pan. During this festival the Blue Yao have the custom of wearing traditional clothes dyed with indigo dyes (Li 2019)

The process of dying

“Indigo dyeing was divided into two main steps: (1) indigo pigment extraction and (2) dyeing cloth. The general procedures of indigo dye extraction included building or buying a dye vat, fermentation, removal of the leaves of indigo producing plant species, addition of lime, oxygenation, followed by collection, and the storage of the indigo paste. The procedures of dyeing cloth included preparing the dye solutions, dyeing cloth, washing, and air drying” (Li 2019).

It is curious to know that in the past, the Blue Yao produced indigo for traditional clothing twice a year, with production times chosen according to the lunar calendar. The first period of indigo production took place from June to August, and the second from September to October. In addition, the Blue Yao traditionally only performed the dyeing process on goat days according to the lunar calendar. It is believed that this was because the goats in their region are black, and the darker colored clothing is a symbol of distinction between them. The black goat therefore helps to make the clothes darker (Li 2019).

For those who still consider the dyeing process used by the Blue Yao to be simple, they should know that ethnobotanical studies have documented the use of 14 different species of plants, belonging to 11 different families, during the process (Li 2019).

In danger of disappearing?

Shan Li and his colleagues, who conducted the most detailed study of textile production and dyeing technology among the Blue Yao, are not very optimistic. » Indigo-dyed textiles have been central to the cultural identity of Landian Yao (literally “blue clothes Yao”) people in Southwest China for centuries, driving a significant local market for naturally dyed indigo cloth. In the past two decades, local indigo production for traditional textiles has declined for several reasons: Firstly, the younger generation of Landian Yao has shifted to using western style jeans and T-shirts.”However, the growing concern among segments of society about the toxic elements contained in industrial dyes may lead to a recognition of the value of these ancient techniques that will allow the Blue Yao dyers to obtain an adequate return for products that are completely natural (Li 2019).

References:

Alberts, Ali. A History of Daoism and the Yao People of South China. Cambria Press.

Gujadhur, Tara. Lanten. The indigo Yao of Laos. Traditional Arts and Technology Center. Laos  2017.

Li, S., Cunningham, A.B., Fan, R. et al. Identity blues: the ethnobotany of the indigo dyeing by Landian Yao (Iu Mien) in Yunnan, Southwest China. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 15, 13 (2019).

Mirenda, Luana What to do en Mengla, Yunnan. A wonderlustlove.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The Blue Women of China of the Yao minority," in Ethnic China, 24 diciembre 2020, https://ethnic-china.com/the-blue-women-of-china-of-the-yao-minority/.

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