The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) wiped out many things in China. Its “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign – old thought, old culture, old customs, and old habits (including vestiges of the old “feudal” society) – continue to affect China today, with its preference for new, contemporary things, rather than preservation of the old. Add to that the country’s rapid urbanization in the last 25 years and we see traditional village life quickly eroding across rural China.
For ethnic minorities, the disappearance of their traditional culture is also due, in large part, to pressure to assimilate into the majority Han culture. The younger generation, for example, is taught Mandarin Chinese in the public school system while their native language is forgotten at home. Exposure to the outside world has also caused the younger generation to lose their unique way of dress in favor of normal machine-made clothing we wear in Western culture.
The textile tradition of Guizhou’s ethnic minorities is tied with their oral history. Their hand-embroidered costumes are quickly disappearing or being reproduced as low-quality imitations for tourist spectacles. Since these costumes are made domestically for use within the family, they do not generate any revenue for the home. While the elder generation maintains the traditional knowledge, the younger generation is not interested in picking it up. The disappearance of traditional fabric-making techniques will mean the disappearance of their rich history and culture.
Chinese culture has traditionally been an agrarian society where the majority of the population lived as farmers. However, they are currently undergoing the largest migration in the planet’s history where, by 2025, 250 million people will have been moved from farms to cities. Between 2000 and 2010, 300 villages across China were being destroyed per day; today, that number continues at 80 villages destroyed per day.
“Chinese culture has traditionally been rural-based. Once the villages are gone, the culture is gone.” – Feng Jicai, Chinese author and scholar
For an agrarian society, tradition and culture is the soul of their people; and for impoverished villages, tradition and culture are all that they have. This forced migration may boost the internal economy by stimulating consumer activity, but it will also disconnect farmers from nature and their traditional way of life. While we can support economic development and progress in rural China, it need not come at the sacrifice of their own culture.
Keeping the production of their fabrics alive is one way to ensure their history and knowledge are passed down to the next generation. Creating global interest in their hand-woven fabrics will cultivate pride in the younger generation and inspire them to learn the handicraft from their parents and carry on this tradition.