In China’s southwest province of Guangxi, the Zhuang nationality comprises the largest ethnic minority with about 14 million people. I was fortunate to meet types of people from this ancient tribe – men and women and little babies – while touring the region. Wherever I found examples of Zhuang collectibles, the one that struck me as particularly unusual was the embroidered ball.
A Zhuang woman, who was also on the tour, explained the history of the craft. The balls are made of colored silk cloth whose pattern indicates the connection of twelve petals or months. Each petal (month) has a mascot. A mascot could be a plum blossom, bamboo, swallows, dragon, chrysanthemum, orchid or phoenix. All these symbols represent reunion and eternal happiness. The petals typically are red, yellow and green.
Originally a love gift, a Zhuang woman would climb a mountain and sing out to her fiance who she hadn’t yet met face-to-face. He would answer with song. If she liked the sound of his song, she would present him with an embroidered ball as a sign of affection–the bigger the ball the greater the love. She whispered in my ear an old Zhuang saying that is passed on from mother to daughter. “If you don’t embroider, you won’t find a good man.” That is why every Zhuang girl learns to embroider from an early age.
You can see the difference between hand-woven and machine-made balls by the tightness of the weave. If it’s done by hand, the weave is flatter and looser. There are three layers to the balls, all sewn. Even so, it is sometimes tricky to see the difference if you are purchasing one at a night market with glaring neon. The Chinese name for the old technique is called Diuxiu Xiuqiu. As the years pass and China modernizes, it is becoming harder to find the hand-woven balls.
A true “King of Embroidery Ball” named Zhu Zhu Xian is held in high esteem because he apparently made the largest-ever embroidery ball at 2 meters long. He’s now in his fifties and still follows the old way of hand-making the balls.
Modern and vintage examples of these “love balls” are on display at the Guangxi Provincial Museum in Nanning.
If you’d like to purchase the authentic Zhuang Embroidered Ball, please contact ShunZhou Embroidered Ball Company, Miss Sarah Lee. email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Her telephone is: +86 – 138776 54107 or +86 – 137188 72913. She speaks very good English and will answer all your questions. If you’re wondering about her name well, like many Chinese who choose an English name, she acquired it after eating a sweet cake made by same company.