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The Art of China’s Li Brocade: Weaving Tradition and Innovation

The art of Li Brocade is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, combining inherited skills with the continuous pursuit of innovation and creativity. Chaoying Zhang, a Li weaver, is committed to promoting this craft and improving the livelihoods of her community and training future generations of weavers in the art of brocade, while safeguarding their intellectual property (IP).

The weaving of Li brocade primarily involves the use of cotton yarn, supplemented by additional materials such as twine, silk, as well as gold and silver threads. (Photo: Courtesy of Chaoying Zhang)

For over 3,000 years, the art of brocade weaving has been deeply rooted in the culture of Li people who are indigenous to China’s Hainan Island. The term “Li” refers to a number of different groups, including, Gai, Ji, Bendi, Meifu, and Jiamao. Each group has distinctive garments, designs and accessories, that reflect their deep cultural heritage and aesthetic standards, which have endured the test of time.

Li Brocade is an expression of the earliest textile techniques and is considered a “living fossil” in Chinese textile history. “Without a doubt, the contributions of the Li people have shaped the diverse range of folk costumes and activities found in the region. Li Brocade is a testament to the labor, wisdom, and artistic spirit of the Li women and holds a significant place in traditional Li culture,” explains Chaoying Zhang, founder of Baisha Canran Li Brocade Handicrafts, a cooperative that promotes the art of Li Brocade in China.

For centuries, the Li people have developed a comprehensive array of techniques that encompass spinning, dyeing, weaving, and embroidery. In 2006, these artisanal skills were officially recognized by the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China, and were subsequently included in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2009.

These traditional techniques are a flag bearer of the Li people’s deep-rooted cultural heritage and reflect the ingenuity, creativity and artistry of the Li women who craft these beautiful fabrics.

Empowering communities

The lifeblood of this ancient craft has been the transmission of skills across generations. In recent decades, however, the number of women practicing the craft has declined, posing a threat to the continuity of traditional Li textile techniques and practices.

To help ensure the craft thrives for years to come, Chaoying Zhang, who learned how to weave Li Brocade from her grandmother, established Baisha Canran Li Brocade Handicrafts in 2016 with the backing of her parents and the local government. “It is crucial for me to raise awareness about the unique appeal of Li Brocade culture in Hainan,” she says.

Preserving Li Brocade serves the dual purpose of protecting the Li people’s rich cultural heritage and fostering new ideas and creativity to ensure this age-old craft continues to evolve. “By recognizing and appreciating traditional weaving skills and encouraging innovation, the art of Li Brocade will retain its significance as a symbol of tradition and progress,” explains Chaoying Zhang.

To ensure the preservation of Li Brocade skills, Baisha Canran Li Brocade Handicrafts organizes public training courses that offer practical guidance and hands-on experience of the craft. “My community brings together women from the villages and regularly organizes public training sessions on the traditional skills of Li Brocade. Qualified trainees receive materials to make Li Brocade at home. This allows them to follow our standardized specifications and procedures when using materials, and patterns and well-established production practices. In this way, the products they make meet our quality standards and specifications.”  

As an ardent champion of Li Brocade, Chaoying Zhang works tirelessly to raise awareness and foster appreciation of this ancient craft. “We need to promote Li brocade around the world and share the compelling story of Hainan, an island steeped in history that spans thousands of years.”

I hope that the culture of Li Brocade can be understood and appreciated by the public.

Chaoying Zhang, founder of Baisha Canran Li Brocade Handicrafts

Video: Chaoying Zhang and her team tell the story of Li Brocade in their winning entry to the 2023 World IP Day Video Competition.

Crafting tradition with the Gen Z

Recognizing the importance of attracting young people to the craft to ensure its continues to thrive, Chaoying Zhang started sharing short videos of her designs on Douyin, one of the most popular social media platforms in China among GenZers.

In this way, her aim is to spark interest in traditional Li crafts, showcase its modern designs and ultimately introduce households across China to the rich cultural heritage of the Li people. “My goal is to generate greater interest in the heritage and traditional culture of Li Brocade and incorporate it into the daily lives of many families,” she says. Chaoying Zhang also organizes regular online and offline events to inspire young people to engage in preserving Li brocade craftsmanship. “These events are capturing the attention of consumers and younger generations. We have to inject new vitality into Hainan’s Li brocade so that, over time, we are able to transform it into a masterpiece of local culture.”

Together with young community members, Chaoying Zhang actively participates in activities organized by international organizations like WIPO, as well as various national organizations and social groups, to promote the Li people’s intangible cultural heritage. “It is crucial for young Li individuals to comprehend the significance of our intangible cultural heritage and how it can be protected with IP rights. As curious explorers, young people possess immense potential to grasp and appreciate the concept of IP rights.”

The participation of youth will enhance the creativity of the designs and weaving techniques that characterize Li brocade.

Chaoying Zhang, founder of Baisha Canran Li Brocade Handicrafts

Chaoying Zhang, founder of Baisha Canran Li Brocade Handicrafts, has gained popularity on the Chinese social media platform Douyin with her traditional Li designs, which she shares with young audiences to introduce them to the marvels of the craft. (Photo: Courtesy of Chaoying Zhang)

The role of IP for Li Brocade

IP rights play a crucial role in preserving and promoting the intangible cultural heritage of the Li people. Various initiatives supported by the local community, central government, and WIPO, have succeeded in raising awareness among artisans of how IP rights can support their work, enabling them to generate income from their craft, hone their skills and support the craft’s long-term development.

“As the government and society have emphasized IP protection, we have realized that registering trademarks, copyrights, and patents for our Li Brocade products can significantly boost their competitiveness and profitability,” Chaoying Zhang notes. “That is why we are paying more and more attention to the protection of IP rights related to Li Brocade,” she adds.

“Oriental Li Brocade” is now a registered geographical indication (GI) and trademark. Patents and utility models have been secured for some weaving equipment used to produce Li Brocade, and selected Li Brocade works are also protected by copyright.”

“By utilizing these IP rights, Li Brocade weavers have been able to generate new designs and improve their weaving techniques. Some weavers have even established their own businesses to market and sell their products,” Chaoying Zhang explains. Promoting greater awareness among Li Brocade weavers of the benefits of protecting their work with IP rights is an important part of Chaoying Zhang’s outreach work.

Through strategic use of IP rights, weavers of Li Brocade are able to ensure the quality and authenticity of their craft. These rights also enable them to defend themselves against any unauthorized usage or misrepresentation of their work. “These measures protect and celebrate the brocade produced by the Li people and helps to ensure that this exquisite craft continues to thrive and is widely appreciated for years to come.”

We aim to increase awareness among Li weavers about the benefits of IP protection and its vital role in supporting the long-term development of Li Brocade.

Chaoying Zhang, founder of Baisha Canran Li Brocade Handicrafts

Chaoying Zhang is particularly keen to equip young Li people with knowledge about IP rights, which she believes is crucial for sustaining and advancing Li Brocade traditions for future generations. “IP helps to protect the innovations and technical advancements made in the field, ensuring that traditional weaving techniques can be preserved and enhanced for future generations. Young Li weavers can actively contribute to the preservation and protection of Li Brocade, a cherished element of their traditional culture,” she explains.

The art of making a traditional Li costume

Producing a traditional costume involves a meticulous process of spinning, dyeing, weaving, and embroidering, which can take up to eight months or more than a year, depending on the intricacy of the design. In the first instance, island cotton is spun into yarn and then dyed. “Finally, we employ a range of embroidery techniques, including one-sided and double-sided embroidery, to adorn the woven pieces,” Chaoying Zhang explains.

The patterns depicted in Li brocade reflects the weaver’s aesthetic sensibilities, lifestyle, cultural customs, and religious beliefs. Unique patterns, techniques, and color palettes serve as a means to express various facets of their lives, such as love, marriage, religious convictions, and aspirations.

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