The Fragrance of the Rush

The Fragrance of the Rush

Byline:JIM HWANG
Publication Date:08/01/2013
The Fragrance of the Rush

Shanjiao Community Development Association president Ye Wen-hui believes that triangle rush weaving is not an outdated craft, but rather an important part of local culture in need of preservation. (Photo by Chang Su-ching)

Miaoli County’s Yuanli Township is reviving its rush weaving culture.

Every morning at around 8, a group of women between the ages of 40 and 70 arrive at the Shanjiao Community Activity Center in the back of Cihu Temple in Yuanli Township, Miaoli County in northern Taiwan. They spread out, sit on the floor and start weaving dried rush stems into hats, bags and other items that Yuanli was once known for nationwide. As their hands move up and down, the chatting and laughter continue in an atmosphere permeated with the unique fragrance of the triangle rush, which has that name because its cross section is triangular.

Dajia District in Taichung City, central Taiwan is another place that comes to mind for many people when they think of locally made rush products. But Ye Wen-hui (葉文輝), president of the Shanjiao Community Development Association, explains that while Dajia once served as the main marketplace for rush products thanks to its more convenient ground transportation options and harbor that allowed the trading of goods with mainland China, most of the rush items were actually made in Yuanli. “The craft has been an important part of local life and culture,” Ye says. “Residents here have been making products from locally grown triangle rushes for nearly two centuries.”

Yuanli Township’s historical documents show that women of the area’s plains-dwelling Pingpu tribe started weaving wild rushes that grew along the Da-an River into mats in the 1720s. Since the varying thicknesses of the wild rushes made weaving difficult, farmers began to domesticate the plant in the 1760s. Han women in the area soon discovered that mats made from triangle rush stems remained cool to the touch during Taiwan’s humid and hot summers. Ye says that Yuanli’s triangle rushes are known to have better hygroscopicity, breathability and strength than those grown elsewhere. With an occasional cleaning and airing in the sun, products made of Yuanli’s rushes can easily last for two to three decades.

The Fragrance of the Rush-1

Instead of weaving to generate income, Yuanli craftswomen now do so to revive a unique local tradition. (Photo by Chang Su-ching)

After picking up the basic weaving techniques from their Pingpu friends, the Han women added new techniques that allowed them to weave patterns into their mats and developed a few new items such as bags and hats. The quality of Yuanli’s triangle rushes and the weaving skill of local women soon turned the small township into the production center of the trade in Taiwan. Historical documents show that Yuanli was already selling some rush products to mainland China during the 1800s. At that time, Taiwan was part of the Qing dynasty, which controlled the island from 1683 to 1895.

The trade really started to boom when Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule (1895–1945), with all woven rush products—mainly seat covers, hats, tobacco bags and insoles for wooden clogs—exported exclusively to Japan. In the 1920s and 1930s, rush products comprised Taiwan’s third largest export category after sugar and rice. “Every Yuanli woman needed to weave,” recalls Chen Hong-shi (陳紅柿), who was born in 1929 to a farming family in the township and started weaving at the age of 7. “For girls like me, that is, girls who couldn’t afford to go to school, it was a full-time job.”

Sales to Japan came to a halt after World War II ended in 1945. Taiwan’s rush producers then mounted a comeback in the mainland Chinese market for a few years, but that ended in 1949, when all cross-strait links were cut off as the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War.

The Fragrance of the Rush-2

With proper care, rush products can last for two to three decades. (Photo by Chang Su-ching)

To help the industry survive in Taiwan, the Nationalist government began organizing rush weaving exhibitions and competitions. The most successful campaign to protect the local rush weaving industry, however, was launched in 1955 by the National Women’s League of the Republic of China. That effort involved “promoting” a specific design for wide-brimmed hats woven from rush stems as part of the uniform for high school students. The women’s organization was founded by Soong Mei-ling (宋美齡, 1898–2003), wife of then President Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石, 1887–1975), and at that time, government agencies of all levels treated anything “promoted” or “proposed” by the first lady as an order. Under a decree by the Ministry of Education, therefore, all of the high school students in the country got their hats. Long-time Yuanli resident Li Yue-ying (李月英), 80, recalls that in the mid-1950s, while her husband’s bicycle shop brought in about NT0 (US.50 at the exchange rate then) a month, she could complete a rush basket in a day or two and make NT0 (US.50). “Rush products were so helpful to a family’s finances that few Yuanli women ever slept on the bed mats or used the bags they’d woven,” Ye says. “They wove to sell, not use.”

Although profitable, Yuanli’s rush weaving industry was actually rather disorganized. There were a few professional rush growers and vendors, but since rushes can be grown easily and the only processing required to make them suitable for weaving is drying them in the sun, most farmers just grew the plants in a corner of their rice paddies for the use of their families and neighbors. There was not any planned manufacturing, nor were there dedicated factories. Instead, women wove the products in living rooms and set them aside to await purchase by door-to-door buyers. Prices were set mostly according to the level of weaving skill exhibited in the products.

The Fragrance of the Rush-3

A handbag and a matching hat with decorative woven roses by Wu Shu-fen, who has been weaving for more than four decades. (Photo Courtesy of Shanjiao Community Development Association)

The domestic market thrived only until the early 1960s, however, when cheaper mass-produced goods made of synthetic materials such as nylon and plastic began replacing those made of rushes. By the early 1970s, rush weaving, which had played an important role in Yuanli’s economy for more than 100 years, ground to a complete stop. Farmers quit growing rushes, women began spending their working hours on the production lines at factories and the small market that remained for rush products was served by imports.

Preserving Traditions

It was not until the early 2000s, when the central government initiated a series of community development projects and launched an effort to boost Taiwan’s cultural creative industry, that the situation started to change. Ye, who retired from teaching at a local elementary school about 10 years ago, joined forces with a few other Yuanli residents to look into preserving the township’s cultural traditions. Eventually they decided to focus on rush weaving. “It was the craft that had helped feed us,” he says. “We decided we weren’t going to let it die out.”

The first step in restoring the craft was to find craftswomen who still knew the techniques. The good news was that even though it had been a few decades since the trade ended in Yuanli, finding capable craftswomen was not difficult. “Women who’d shifted from weaving at home to working in factories had retired, and they were more than willing to contribute their knowledge,” Ye says. “Some of them might’ve been a little rusty at first, but it was hard for them to totally forget the skills, as they’d woven all day for years since they were little girls.”

The Fragrance of the Rush-4

Yuanli craftswomen are experimenting with combining rushes and other materials to make products such as leather-and-rush clutch bags and key purses. (Photo Courtesy of Shanjiao Community Development Association)

The bad news was that farmers had stopped growing triangle rushes when the industry faded out some 30 years earlier so there was no raw material to work with. Fortunately, after a lot of asking around, Ye found the sole farmer in the area who was still growing a small amount of triangle rushes. Those plants were grown under contract to a merchant who used them to bind crabs for cooking, as the plant gives the crabs a unique fragrance when steamed. The farmer agreed to provide Ye with some triangle rush seedlings, after which growing the plant on a larger scale was not a problem thanks to its ability to tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions.

Ye then converted the Shanjiao Community Activity Center into both a workshop and an exhibition room for triangle rush products, and weaving restarted in 2004. Rather than working at home as they used to do, craftswomen from Shanjiao and other Yuanli communities came to the workshop to weave and discuss their work. Ye notes that the goals of this initial stage were to revive the techniques and memories associated with rush weaving as well as gain local support. Subsequently, the community development association opened classes for residents who were interested and introduced the craft into the curriculum of local elementary and junior high schools. To encourage participation, the community started holding an annual weaving competition in 2006 and began publishing an annual photo album of works that had been entered in the event. “Many of the craftswomen have woven quietly for decades,” Ye says. “The chance to see their own works published in the album is a whole new experience that motivates them to keep weaving.”

The Fragrance of the Rush-5

Rush products including tablet computer covers are aimed at maintaining the craft’s relevance in the modern world. (Photo Courtesy of Shanjiao Community Development Association)

The year 2004 also saw the Yuanli Farmers’ Association begin operating the Triangle Rush Exhibition Hall, which received funding from the Council for Cultural Affairs (now Ministry of Culture) under a central government policy called the Local Cultural Museum Program. Ye notes that the growing popularity of domestic tourism over the past decade has seen tourists choosing destinations not only because of their entertainment options, but also because of their local color, which can extend to architecture, culture, food, handicrafts, natural resources and so forth. One result of that trend is that more tourists are visiting the exhibition hall to learn about rush weaving, although they do so for different reasons. Schoolteachers bring students to give them a hands-on experience of local culture and ecology. Members of government organizations make the trip to observe, study and survey. Private companies hold leisure tours for employees and their families, while other community associations come to learn about Yuanli’s efforts to showcase a local tradition and experience in community revitalization.

The tourists visiting the workshop and exhibition hall provide a good chance for Yuanli to spread awareness of the benefits of rush products as well as generate business opportunities. Income from tourists and orders for souvenirs from various government agencies and private organizations now allow the community association to employ nine full-time craftswomen at the workshop and about 50 freelancers, who work at home and are paid on a piecework basis.

After opening the exhibition hall, the community development association decided to document Yuanli’s history of rush weaving by commissioning a report by Lu Chia-hui (陸佳暉), an assistant professor in the Department of Material Arts and Design at Tainan National University of the Arts (TNNUA). In 2006, Lu started collecting information on traditional weaving techniques and interviewing rush farmers and craftswomen. Lu’s report was published by the association in 2010. “It’s probably not important for people elsewhere,” Ye says. “For locals, though, this report documents not only a craft or a trade, but also a lifestyle.”

The Fragrance of the Rush-6

Easy to grow and simple to process, triangle rushes have been woven into various products since the 18th century. (Photo by Chang Su-ching)

During her research, Lu identified changes that would help to keep the craft alive. “The old needs to be preserved, but it takes innovation and new designs to really make rush products part of people’s daily lives these days,” she says. That point was well taken by Ye, who has launched a series of programs aimed at spurring innovation in rush weaving. He invites art or design teachers to talk to weavers about design, for example, and works directly with students from several universities including TNNUA, Taipei National University of the Arts and National Yunlin University of Science and Technology in southern Taiwan. The students often come up with innovative uses for the triangle rush. Instead of just weaving separate seat covers as has been done for hundreds of years, for example, one student incorporated rushes in the construction of the seat itself.

Gaining Inspiration

“By executing new ideas and new designs generated by these students, our craftswomen, it seems, are also gaining inspiration to create their own innovative products,” Ye says. For example, Guo Li-xue (郭麗雪), a freelance Yuanli weaver, came up with the idea of making cases for iPads after she received one for Mother’s Day.

In addition to familiarizing craftswomen with the concepts of design, Ye has been encouraging them to work with additional materials. Last year, he invited leather craftsmen to teach the community about their craft and look into whether products could be made by using a combination of leather and triangle rushes. The experiment seems to have worked well, as several craftswomen have combined the two materials to come up with their own designs for bags, purses and other products.

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A restoration of an old bamboo folding chair by Liu Su-zhen features a woven rush back and seat. (Photo Courtesy of Shanjiao Community Development Association)

The income generated by weaving rush products is not as attractive today as it was a few decades ago, as there are now much faster and easier ways to make money. A bed cover that sells for NT,000 (US6), for example, takes a weaver approximately a month to make. Modern Yuanli weavers do not turn out rush products solely to make money, as was previously the case, but are also motivated by the thought of preserving and developing a unique craft that is part of their culture. So every morning, they come to the community activity center and continue to weave while immersed in a unique fragrance that was almost lost for good.

Write to Jim Hwang at cyhuang03@mofa.gov.tw