Spinning a yarn
Efforts underway by locals to preserve Chongming Island’s traditional tubu crafts
Published: Nov 01, 2015 06:38 PM
Editor's Note

According to UNESCO's definition, an "intangible cultural heritage" includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. It has to be traditional, contemporary and living at the same time, inclusive, representative, and community-based. The safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.

The Shanghai municipal government has designated over 160 traditions as Shanghai's intangible cultural heritage.

The Global Times Metro Shanghai culture page will introduce one intangible culture heritage and interview their current inheritors every month.

As a leading agricultural nation, China has a long tradition of producing homespun cotton fabrics.

The regions south of the Yangtze River used to be the best in terms of this craft across the country. On Chongming Island, Chongming tubu (homespun cotton fabrics), which were produced by girls before they were wed, used to be an essential part of a bride's dowry.

However, with the mechanization of the textile industry, homespun fabrics gradually fell out of favor, and very few Chongming islanders retain the tubu skills today.

In an effort to preserve it, Chongming tubu (known as laobu among the locals) was listed as an item of the city's intangible cultural heritage this year.

The origin of tubu dates back to around 600 years ago in the late Yuan (1279-1368) or early Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.

In the past, the fabric was sold domestically and to countries including Indonesia and the Philippines.

During its high point in the early 1900s, the total length of tubu produced in one year was over 67 million meters, making Chongming one of the major areas of fabric production in China.

Long history

Chongming tubu is made of cotton and spun on a loom. It is rough in appearance and comes in bright colors and unconventional patterns.

Song Rongyao, director of the Mumian Huakai Chongming tubu crafts workshop, said the different patterns have different meanings.

"The pattern of lufeihua has a sense of unlimited extension. It has the meaning that everything will be smooth. So Chongming brides always wore a piece of laobu clothing with such a pattern on their wedding day," Song said.

Song was fascinated with the tubu of her mother's dowry when she was a child. In 2010, she started to collect tubu examples from Chongming residents, and has collected several thousand rolls so far.

"In the past, every family had laobu. Since Chongming developed very quickly, many families did not use up their laobu and the fabrics were left unused," said Song.

One of the rolls she has collected is patterned with Chinese characters. "Compared with graphic patterns, the spinning skill for character patterns is much more complicated and difficult." 

Chongming tubu is durable and feels comfortable. It can help maintain warmth in the winter and absorb sweat in summer more efficiently than fabrics made of artificial fiber.

"In the past, there were no fabrics made of artificial fibers. All the clothes were made of cotton fabrics. The threads of the fabrics were also dyed with plant dyestuff. So it is the most healthy and environmentally friendly."

(Clockwise from above) Song Rongyao has collected several thousand rolls of Chongming tubu since 2010. A loom and shuttles used by Chongming islanders to make tubu Photos: Du Qiongfang/GT

Disappearing skill

In the past, almost every woman on the island could spin the fabric. From processing cotton and producing thread to spinning the fabric with a loom and making clothes, young girls learned all the skills from generation to generation.

The quality of the fabric they made was one of the most important criteria in judging the capacity and cleverness of a woman on the island.

Girls started to learn the craft once they were teenagers. When they married in their 20s, they would have already prepared their brides' dowry of a number of rolls of the homespun cotton fabric.

Those who prepared more fabric of more colorful and complicated patterns were considered as more capable and more diligent.

"On the wedding day, bridegrooms' relatives will open the closet of the newlywed's room to check the laobu dowry, and judge the capability of the bride. If your fabrics have a variety of colors and patterns, you will be considered a skillful wife," said Song.

The producing process of Chongming tubu is quite complicated. From picking cotton and spinning threads to coloring and spinning fabric, there are 72 procedures.

In the past, while male islanders were out working in the fields, Chongming women were spinning at home day and night.

The noise of looms coming from households on the island is a cherished memory of many elderly residents.

Cultural preservation

With the development of industrial production in the 1980s, homespun cotton fabrics were gradually replaced by fabrics spun by machines. These days, relatively few young people can spin tubu, and it is not used as dowry.

In order to protect the tradition and culture of Chongming tubu and its spinning skills, some young islanders started to collect tubu.

Song, who is a civil servant, spends her leisure hours on fabric crafts. She found her tubu crafts was popular among her friends and colleagues.

She then came up with the idea of teaching single mothers and disabled women how to make Chongming tubu crafts, the sale of which can bring them some income.

Song is now considering inviting those who can still spin tubu to teach the skills to these women in her workshop. She's also looking for some designers to cooperate with and make tubu garments.

She hopes this culture can be preserved and passed on to future generation through this project.