Tree Bark Cloth: A living fossil of the Li textile culture

By Chen Shumin / HICN / Updated: 16:05,10-January-2022

Over 3,000 years ago, the ancestors of the Li people on Hainan Island made their clothing from tree bark. This kind of tree bark cloth, also called “na” cloth or grain skin cloth, can still be seen among the Li people who live in the province’s central and southern cities or counties such as Sanya, Wuzhishan, Dongfang, Qiongzhong, Baoting, Lingshui, Ledong, Changjiang, and Baisha.

(Photo courtesy of Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center)

The craft of making tree bark cloth makes use of the ancient technique of processing bark from a tree into a non-woven fabric, and this practice was included on the first list of China’s national intangible cultural heritage, released in 2006. Tree bark cloth has played a significant role in anthropology and cultural history, as it demonstrates the development of clothes from non-woven fabrics to textiles.

The Li people have perfected the technique of making cloth out of the bark of certain trees that grow in the area they live, such as Poison Arrow Tree (Antiaris toxicaria), the Gurjon Tree (Lannea coromandelica), the Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), and others.

The Li bark cloth made of the bark of the Gurjon Tree exhibited in the museum. SONG GUOQIANG

According to Wang Wenqi, a senior artisan of the Li bark cloth craft in Baoting, bark from the Poison Arrow Tree is the most suitable raw material for making cloth, although its latex contains intensely toxic cardenolides, a toxin that has been used to make arrows and darts more deadly in several Southeast Asian island cultures. The bark of the tree is quite thick, with over ten layers and tightly intertwined fibers, which makes it durable and difficult to tear.

Despite needing only simple tools such as a mallet and blade, the tree bark cloth making process is very complicated, with many steps including peeling the bark from the tree, trimming it, immersing it in water, rinsing, drying, and beating it into thin strips, and then sewing the final product. Following are the six major steps of making tree bark cloth.

First, chop the tree. Select a section of a Paper Mulberry tree with an appropriate length and a diameter of about 20 cm.

(Photo courtesy of Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center)

Second, peel the wood. Use a mallet to pound the trunk until the fibers of the bark get looser, and then use a blade to cut against the direction of the growth of the tree to separate the bark from the underlying wood.   

(Photo courtesy of Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center)

Third, degum and strip the bark. Immerse the bark in water to degum it and strip away the remaining bits of wood and gum, until only the soft fibers are left.

(Photo courtesy of Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center)

Fourth, beat and rinse the bark. Beat the bark repeatedly with the mallet until the surface is even and soft.

(Photo courtesy of Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center)

Fifth, dry the bark. Dry the bark in the sun for about three days.

(Photo courtesy of Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center)

Sixth, beat the bark into thin strips and then sew it into clothing. Continue to beat the bark until the whole strip of bark is as soft as a piece of cloth. The well-processed bark can then be sewed into hats, quilts, jackets, skirts and other items of clothing.

(Photo courtesy of Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center)

Even working with an extremely toxic tree, the diligent and wise ancient Li people were able to make tree bark into well-fitting clothing. Regarded as a “living fossil” of non-woven fabric clothes, tree bark cloth has also brought warm blessings to the Li people in the mysterious, deep mountains of central Hainan.

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