Life

Rediscovering Chinese batik
in Indonesia

Apparently, many people have been confusing Chinese batik and Chinese-made textiles with batik motifs, particularly following the influx of Chinese textiles into Indonesia after the Asean-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) trade pact came into effect on Jan. 1, 2010.

Chinese batik encompasses batik designs developed by the Chinese who lived in many parts of Indonesia, starting as early as the 13th century, especially in the coastal areas of Java, said Asti Suryo Astuti from garment manufacturer Danar Hadi Batik.

Around 125 pieces of Chinese batik, part of a collection of old batik belonging to Danar Hadi, are currently on display at nDalem (House) Wuryoningratan on Jl. Slamet Riyadi No. 261 Surakarta, Central Java, until March 31, to raise the public's awareness about Chinese batik and celebrate this year's Chinese new year.

During the 13th century, many Chinese traders settled in Indonesia by building houses in several major ports in Java, such as Cirebon and Indramayu in West Java, Pekalongan (Central Java) and Lasem and Tuban (East Java).

As they mingled with locals, they slowly adopted the local culture and traditions including the way they dressed, with women wearing sarongs and batik and men trousers made of batik.

Then, they began creating their own batik with motifs mixing their culture of origin and that of the locals. Typical motifs of Chinese batik include animals commonly found in Chinese mythology such as dragons, lions, the phoenix, peacocks, turtles and kilin (a dog with lion head).

In the early 1900s, Chinese batik flourished, using symbols like the ones found in the designs of old ceramic products, pictures of gods and goddesses in the typical red Chinese color for pictures of the sky. Sometimes, they combined red and blue like in the mega-mendung (sky) motif.

Other typical motifs in Chinese batik include flowers in strong reds, blues and yellows, which were influenced by designs found in the more established batik Belanda and batik Cirebon.

Flowery motifs were common in batik called esuk-sore (morning-afternoon), a batik where the fabric is adorned with two different motifs and designed for ladies who depending on the time of the day, might want to highlight a different motif, as though they had more than one piece of fabric.

In some regions, motifs in Chinese batik were similar to that of classical Javanese batik. To attract local buyers, for example, they also promoted designs with darker colors like dark brown, inspired by batik Demak, a region in the northern coast of Central Java.

At that time, darker-colored batik - blue and black - from Yogyakarta and Surakarta were considered the main type of batik. No wonder they adopted these colors and mixed them with their original motifs.

Although Chinese batik developed in several coastal towns of Java, how the Chinese and local batik blended varied from one region to the other, in terms of ornaments and colors.

In Lasem, for example, the phoenix became the batik's main ornament combined with local motifs.

In Pekalongan, the Chinese batik was much more influenced by batik Belanda (Dutch). Batik Belanda had evolved before the Chinese traders started creating batik, but its popularity declined in the 1900s, and some motifs mixing in Dutch cultural ornaments were adopted by the later Chinese generation of batik.

Designs with images of animals from Chinese mythology were sustained as they were used for certain traditional Chinese rituals. Chinese batik featuring images of animals were used as covers for altars (tok-wi) or as tablecloths (muk-li).

In general, there are substantial differences between Javanese and Chinese or Dutch batiks, namely in their philosophical content. Javanese batik is traditionally rich with philosophical values, with certain motifs reserved for certain groups of people.

Only sultans or select members of royal families in the olden days could wear batik with a parang motif, for example. And in those days, ordinary people wouldn't dear wear certain motifs.

There were no such rules for Chinese or Dutch batiks, merely endowed with economic rather than philosophical values.

The display of Chinese batik, according to Asti, is expected to enrich people's knowledge about batik, which is now gaining popularity after it was acknowledged by UNESCO as the cultural heritage of Indonesia.

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.