Half a century ago, the Li ethnic minority population in the remote mountain areas of Hainan island of south China were wearing hand-made traditional costumes.
Today, however, most of the 1.2 million island people are dressing in a modern way leaving the manufacture of Li brocade on the edge of extinction.
A deputy attending the 10th National People's Congress is now calling for more to be done to protect the traditional weaving and dyeing technique.
"Old craftsmen can't find young followers to learn their skills. Cotton, wild fibre resources and natural dyeing materials to make Li brocade are disappearing rapidly as forests are developed," said Wang Xueping, a NPC deputy from Hainan Province. As a Li ethnic person, the 68-year-old said it was urgent to save the ancient weaving skill.
Li brocade is the earliest type of clothing product in China, according to historical records. As far back as 2,500 years ago, Li people mastered the spinning and weaving skill, which was then introduced onto the continent. Woven of cotton yarn and silk thread, Li brocade is mainly used to make women's tube-shaped skirts and bags, as well as other clothing products with vivid colors.
Despite the impact of the textile industry, the island's location enabled Li people to use the most natural resources, including cotton, bark, and wild vines, to easily produce clothing until the early 20th century.
Producing Li brocade used to be a basic skill for Li women, who were required to learn the whole process of spinning, weaving and dyeing. There are some 100 patterns of Li brocade, and techniques have been passed down from generation to generation through word of mouth.
Wang has been dedicated to protecting Li cultural heritage since 1981.
He said since almost no women have learnt the craft since the 1960s, the existing craftsmen are all aged over 70. The death of just one craftsman may lead to the loss of certain patterns and styles forever.
"We don't know how many of them are left in Hainan. I could name only two or three craftsmen in my hometown," said Wang, who hails from Zayun Town of Qiongzhong Li and Miao Autonomous County located in the central part of the island.
"Young people learn some basic embroidery skills to make clothes for tourists, but almost no one is learning the skills of weaving and dyeing."
The development of rural areas over the past few decades has seriously damaged natural resources in the environment.
"Li women can dye clothes with various plants, but such plants are becoming fewer and fewer," said Wang.
Li brocade is listed among the nation's approximate 500 oral and intangible heritages by the State Council.
The Hainan Province has set up a long-term preservation project, including a provincial-wide survey and a record of patterns, in a bid to arrest the decline.
Experts also hope the traditional crafts of Li ethnic people will be listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization.
(China Daily March 14, 2006)