Dyeing is so woven into Dali’s culture that the practice even survived the Cultural Revolution, when many other Dong traditions, such as shamanism, were stamped out by communist fanatics trying to destroy what they saw as a feudal past.
But the traditions have come under a different threat since China’s market economy took off in recent decades. As the lure of work and education has drawn youth to China’s growing cities, few young Dong women are left in villages like this one.
Of those who remain, even fewer show interest in learning the labor-intensive techniques of indigo dyeing.
“I want to teach my daughters, but they don’t want to learn,” said Zhang Yuyuan, 75, as she stepped back from plunging fabric into a navy-blue bath. “They say, ‘We’ll just mess it up, so you should just do it.’”
Hoping to save Dali’s folk traditions, provincial officials in 2011 invited in the Global Heritage Fund, a preservation organization based in California.
The Global Heritage Fund has begun working with Atlas Studio, a Beijing-based design studio, to set up a weaving and dyeing co-op in Dali. The aim is twofold: to create opportunities to work closer to home and to persuade young Dong women to learn their traditions.