Diving into Deep Blue
Chinese Woman Dedicates Life to Saving, Promoting Lanjiaxie Artworks
WOMEN OF CHINA 《中国妇女》英文月刊2011-5
ZHANG YUAN 张媛
Photos by YE SHAN
Initially, Zhang Qin was simply an aficionado of traditional Chinese folk artworks, such as the blue-print cloth and other fabric-made items with patterns that showcased classical Chinese opera scenes. After she became a collector and began studying related folk culture and art, Zhang developed an interest in lanjiaxie — the deep-blue, printed and dyed cloth — that is regarded as an intangible cultural heritage in China's folk art history. Sparing no effort to save and promote lanjiaxie works of art, Zhang quit her job, sold her house, left her hometown and spent all of her money on researching lanjiaxie. For more than 10 years, Zhang has pursued her goals: Raise the public's awareness and understanding of the charming deep-blue Chinese folk artworks — and encourage people to hold on to the items.
Zhang in 2001 made up her mind to dedicate herself to studying and promoting lanjiaxie artworks. At that time, the deep-blue, handmade cloth was a folk art not commonly known by ordinary Chinese. During the next five years, Zhang visited villages, where folk artists made and collected lanjiaxie, to make contacts so she could learn about the history and cultural values of lanjiaxie. She finished her field research in February 2005.
Last year, Zhang used her personal collectibles to host an exhibition of lanjiaxie in the National Centre for the Performing Arts, in Beijing, from August 12 - September 6. In the years prior to the exhibition, Zhang wrote two books — The Chinese Lanjiaxie and The Kunqu Opera on Blue-print Cloth — which helped advance the study of lanjiaxie.
During the past decade, Zhang has tied a special knot between the development of lanjiaxie and her own life.
Zhang was born in Wenzhou, in southeastern China's Zhejiang Province, in the 1970s. She was raised in Wenzhou, where she studied and worked for several years. In university, she majored in Chinese studies, and she always liked writing. After she graduated, Zhang joined Wenzhou Ren (Wenzhou People), a local magazine, as a reporter. From news and social issues to culturally oriented features, Zhang gradually shifted the focus of her work and was soon one of the magazine's senior reporters. Despite the stable position and sound income, Zhang often felt that she lacked challenges.
In 2000, influenced by the globally distributed National Geographic magazine, Chinese experts and scholars began conducting field research in many of China's time-honored villages/regions, and they published feature articles based on their research. Around that time, Wenzhou Ren published — the first time in its history — a four-page feature on ancient villages in Wenzhou. Inspired by that experience, Zhang thought it would be interesting to write culturally oriented features.
In August 2000, Zhang began taking field trips to explore the land on which she grew up. She bought maps and books about Wenzhou and started to focus on folk culture which was hidden in old architecture, traditional handicrafts and local customs. Within three years, Zhang and her colleagues had written 20 feature reports on Wenzhou's colorful folk culture. The reports included lanjiaxie, which would have a lifelong influence on Zhang.
Lanjiaxie, also known as indigo-print, is a cloth that is printed with patterns carved on wooden boards, in deep blue dye. Folk artists in southeastern China's Zhejiang and Fujian provinces have made lanjiaxie for more than 1,000 years.
The commonly seen blue-print clothes, worn by rural women in the area, are made primarily from such materials. The dye is made from extractions from the plant known as fragrant thoroughwort. After the cloth is submerged in the dye, it is air-dried, during which oxygenation turns the cloth into a deep blue color. The color does not fade easily.
In southern Zhejiang Province, newlyweds often use lanjiaxie as bedcovers. Local people believe lanjiaxie, which symbolizes happiness, is the most important dowry that a bride's family can prepare before the wedding ceremony. Lanjiaxie used for a wedding is usually dyed on a lucky day, which is chosen according to the ecliptic calendar. It is considered bad luck for a couple to get married without lanjiaxie.
The first lanjiaxie in Zhang's collection had been a gift from her mother, Chen Ailian. During one of her field trips, Zhang called her mother to ask what exactly the lanjiaxie bedcover was. Chen taught her daughter about the folk legend of lanjiaxie and later took out the lanjiaxie, which her family had prepared for her wedding, and gave it to Zhang.
Zhang encountered work-related difficulty shortly after she developed her interest in lanjiaxie; Taiwan-based Echo magazine published a report on lanjiaxie, which received worldwide acclaim, and, as a result, Zhang had to find a different angle for her report.
She read the report in Echo and noticed the article focused on the technical skills required to make lanjiaxie; Zhang, therefore, decided to focus her article on the history and cultural values of lanjiaxie.
As she continued studying lanjiaxie, Zhang grew more and more fascinated with the art form. She spent all of her spare time researching and reading books and materials about lanjiaxie.
After the members of Wenzhou Ren's editorial board were changed, Zhang was no longer allowed to write articles solely on the topic of lanjiaxie. She quit her job and joined the staff of Wenzhou City Newspaper, which created a culturally oriented column for her to publish eight reports — in successive issues — about lanjiaxie. Many of her colleagues could not understand why Zhang always focused on the same topic.
On February 28, 2005, Zhang submitted her final article to the newspaper, quit her job — again — and bought a flight ticket to Beijing. She had decided to display lanjiaxie works of art that she had collected throughout the years. She thought Beijing would be the perfect place to establish the permanent exhibit.
After Zhang learned of the preparations she would have to undertake, the requirements she would have to meet and the difficulties she would encounter, she asked her family to sell her house in Wenzhou. She settled down in Beijing and began concentrating on studying lanjiaxie art as a scholar.
"In the past, I hesitated about whether I should continue studying lanjiaxie. I even thought about giving up … I spent too much on lanjiaxie and it made me feel a lot of pressure. There was a period in time when I felt very depressed almost every day before I went to bed. But it's amazing that every time I tried to persuade myself to give up, I would have a dream," she recalls.
"In that dream, I was running on a huge piece of lanjiaxie cloth, barefoot. That lanjiaxie seemed boundless. With a warm sun above my head and my body embraced by a breeze, I was running on and on, easily and free … When I awoke, I felt very peaceful and I could even smell the sweetness of sunshine in the dream."
That repetitive dream made Zhang believe there was an unbreakable emotional tie between lanjiaxie and her life.
On and On
Zhang says times were difficult when she first arrived in Beijing. After all, it was the first time that she settled down in a big, totally strange, city and had to cope with the types of difficulties she had never faced in her hometown. Also, she did not have a full-time job, which meant she did not have a stable salary to cover her daily expenses. Her family provided enough money to enable Zhang to concentrate on her studies.
In September 2006, Zhang wrote The Chinese Lanjiaxie, which was based on her years of research. Since then, she has carved out her career by developing and marketing lanjiaxie handicrafts, which she has introduced to a much wider base of people, such as her readers, assistants, business partners, clients and customers.
Zhang's residence is like a small museum of lanjiaxie; all of the rooms are decorated with beautiful, deep-blue cloth. Zhang says her interest in lanjiaxie and other works of fabric art grew primarily out of her interest in traditional Chinese operas. Zhang has been fond of opera since she was a little girl and many of her collectibles feature patterns that showcase classical Chinese opera scenes. Zhang still watches opera with her friends in her spare time.
To ensure she has enough money to collect very rare, and valuable, works of art, Zhang sells some of her collectibles every year. This year, she plans to have another book published. She is preparing to display her collectibles in the United States next year.
Many people think of Zhang as a cultural missionary of lanjiaxie, as she has taken great efforts to save the unique, deep-blue Chinese art form and share it with the rest of the world. "Lanjiaxie art has changed the growing path of myself and enriched me with a much more splendid life!" Zhang says.
(Executive Editors: YE SHAN and ZHANG YUAN 责任编辑：叶珊 张媛)