There is something in common in these icons, can you find it?

The color
The texture
The decoration
Production method

Indigo is among the oldest dyes used for textile dyeing. Many Asian countries, such as India, China, Japan, and Southeast Asian nations have used indigo as a dye (particularly silk dye) for centuries.

Especially in China, Indigo dye mirrored Chinese history to some extent. At the end of the 13th century, cotton gradually replaced the role of linen as the main fabric of the Chinese textile industry after people imported cotton from India. But raw cotton is white, and easy to become dirty. People tried to find a stable top-grade dye for cotton dyeing. Indigo is one perfect choice. In this case, the indigo dyeing industry became increasingly important in the 17th century, the beginning of the Qing Dynasty. For a long time, southern village farmers and workers lived in the indigo fabric industry.

A craft man, who wears indigo cloth, is coloring the chinaware.

Indigo fabric was exported with tea, silk, chinaware from ancient China to other places. Traditional indigo dyeing mirrored the flourishing of the early Qing Dynasty. The population increased 13-14%. Even today, some areas keep the traditional ways of making indigo fabric.

Making indigo dyeing

Process of Traditional Indigo Fabric Making

In the beginning, workers pour the bluegrass like Isatis root, into the bar, with big stones or woods on them.

After several days, they filter the liquid and add the lime with a proportion of 1.5%. then they use the stick to stir the liquid.

After the lees of indigo dyeing gradually subside, people discharge the water. In the end, the indigo dyeing will be like a thick porridge. Indigo dyeing is successfully made.

Indigo Before 1949

In the 18th century, with the invention of the Spinning Jenny in the First Industrial Revolution, the western fabric became cheaper compared to native fabrics. So, more and more native fabric makers lost their jobs. The machine replaced the role of normal workers.

With the development of indigo synthesis, Johannes Pfleger and Karl Heumann eventually devised industrial-scale synthesis in the late 19th century. The indigo making process was not economical anymore. In 1897, 19,000 tons of indigo were being produced from plant sources. The number decreased to 1,000 tons in 1914 as indigo synthesis became popular. Technology forever changed the way of making indigo.

Indigo Production in a Factory in 1890

Since native farmers and workers lost their jobs, then protested, they came together, gradually behaving more violently. The Qing government had to quell the insurgency, but increasingly struggled to deal with the protesters. Resulting from a series of violent protests, the government had to bring guns from other developed countries. But other countries were not great friends with them. In fact, they’ve coveted the Chinese land for a long time. Because China was weaker and weaker, some of them wanted to take advantage of it.

In 1894, Chinese exports suffered huge damage because of the Sino-Japanese War. With the failure of Qing’s army, more unequal treaties were made under duress. The exports of Chinese indigo fabric decreased greatly.

The second big drop happened in 1904. The Russo-Japanese War broke out in the Liaodong Peninsula, which is in northeast China. This war was like the rehearsal of the First World War with big armies, ample supplies, highly-developed equipment like rapid-firing guns. In this case, the Qing dynasty was more bullied by greater powers. China became more turbulent.

Soon, the 1911 Revolution occurred. Intellectuals, farmers, vagrants, and secret public organizations were able to group together and successfully overthrew China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty, because it was too weakened to modernize China and confront foreign aggression.

And the May 4th Movement, which happened in 1919, had many similarities with the 1911 Revolution. People were unsatisfied with the government’s attitude towards invaders. Many people from different backgrounds supported each other and participated in the movement. And those people were out on strike, marched against the government, even had violent confrontations. Because of the prevailing insecurity, the exports of Chinese products drastically reduced. Civilians became destitute and homeless. Many children starved.

A Homeless Mother with her Children

Luckily, some wealthy Chinese people learned to develop technology from western countries and built new factories in China. They took advantage of the period of the First World War, when western countries defended their own countries and had no time to go forward, to develop Chinese light industry. The wealthy Chinese people were also the main powers to support students in the May 4th Movement. So, there was a significant increase in the exports after 1920.

A Textile Factory in Shanghai

Today's Indigo Hand Making

Some people still insist on traditional ways to produce indigo fabric in southeast China nowadays. In my hometown Guizhou, Miao people are famous for this traditional craft. If you go to local landscapes, there will be some indigo fabric handicrafts sold. Many of them express good wishes.

For example, in “a big splash”, the carp has leaped over the dragon's gate, which means success, especially for students who have passed their exams.

A Big Splash

Happiness, Longevity with Lots of Children

Phoenix Play with Peony Flower

In spite of traditional design, some artists also tried many ways to innovate indigo fabric to promote traditional things that got more use in modern society.

Indigo after 1949

Maybe some people think the indigo fabric would quickly revive with the establishment after the War of the People's Republic of China in the 1949 period. But it’s not true. China took a roundabout course in economic development in the Great Leap Forward, which moved too quickly and created economic problems. A significant result of the Great Leap Forward was a drastic decline in food output, which caused tens of millions of deaths in the Great Chinese Famine. Approximately 30 million people died in only five years. After that, the Cultural Revolution, which was established to correct the problems of the Great Leap Forward, but damaged China's economy further. We can almost say, China had enough calamitous trouble in its modern history.

But China’s fortunes began to change with the coming of the 1980s. The Chinese Economic Reform changed the situation that the Chinese market was closed for nearly 30 years, when most Chinese lived on less than $2 per day. The Reform pushed the high-speed development of the Chinese economy. From 1978 until 2013, rapid growth occurred, with the economy increasing by an average of 9.5% a year. How did they do that??

First of all, the government gave up some control of social resources, ignited entrepreneurship, and gave private firms considerable freedom.

Second, the government opened its market at some Special Economic Zones in Guangdong and Xiamen, to attract overseas investment. These areas have more flexible policies, tariff reduction and exemption, and an ideal investment environment.

Third, China actively became a member of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. Zhu Rongji, who served as the Premier of China, used to say, ”We have been talked, on and off, for 15 years (join to WTO), even hair from black to white.” Why did China spare no effort to officially join the WTO? Being a member, China can collaborate with other member countries without any extra tariffs or other barriers. If any trade friction happens, WTO will help to solve it. With their help and diligent Chinese who were pressed for so long, China’s world-shaking changed.

We can compare the top five categories of exports from China and America to the world in 1960 and 2018. In 1960, the top one export community is vegetable products. Under vegetable products, rice, the No.1 item, ranked as products from 1 to 3. Item 4 is soybeans. Items 5 is tea.

But in 2018, the top one community is the machine. Product rank from 1 to 3 are telephones, computers, integrated circuits. It is no surprise that China is the so-called “the factory of the world” with rapid industrialization.

Even if the second community in 1962 and 2018 both are textiles, the detailed product names are different. In 1962, the exports of Chinese textiles were mainly composed of woven cotton, house linens, raw silk and so on. In 2018, the exports of Chinese textile consist of knit sweaters, non-knit men and women’s suits, non-knit men and women’s coats. You can see, Chinese factories mainly produce finished products now, away from cheap mass production.

Denim Imports from China to USA

With the quickly reviving manufacturing industry of China in the 1990s, factories began to produce the indigo synthesis, denim fabric, silk, especially in Guangdong, one of Special Economic Zones.

Nowadays, 70% of indigo synthesis and denim fabric in the world come from China. Take the city Xintang for an example. It is known as “the hometown of Chinese Jeans,” which has over 2600 jeans-making and related enterprises, producing 2.5 million denim clothes. It occupies 30% of the exports of Chinese denim, sold abroad like Russia, America, Europe and so forth.

The Location of Xintang

As for the imports of jeans from China to America, you will find California imports the most. Through research, I found that Levi's owns more than 100 factories in China. Their products will be shipped to San Francisco. Some will be sold to the native. As you know, the population of California is huge. The number of jeans consumers is also huge. Besides, California is also one of the economic centers in America. Denim fabric will be processed, then exported to the global market.

New challenge for Chinese Indigo

Some Chinese factories are in the transition from low-cost manufacturing to knowledge-based industries. Their products are good. But nobody knows that. They have to rely on international big enterprises to survive. How to create their own brand is the biggest challenge for them. Another challenge is water pollution. Chemical reagents hurt workers’ health. The government stopped 76 firms’ production last year. One reason is to improve the polluted environment. Another reason is to facilitate new product projects, like the “Foxconn” core supporting business.

All in all, indigo mirrored the decline and revival of China. The dye, which is used for your jeans, is also used for ancient Chinese cloth. And if you check your jeans, it might tell you: ”I’m made in China😄.”

- Created by Yutong Han -

Thank for professor Alberto Cairo and Lenny Martinez's help. Without their help, I cannot make it. For the exports of cotton, wool and silk from China to the world, data was retrieved from the book Statistics of China’s Foreign Trade During the Last Sixty-five Years. The total exports and main five categories of exports in China and USA to the world are based on UN COMTRADE datasets. The imports of Chinese denim to USA in 1996 and 2018 are retrieved from USITC DataWeb. I built it by D3. If you want to know more behind this article, welcome to my blog and my portfolio website.