Banlangen: The Chinese medicine that’s also used for tie-dye

Dec 15, 2020

Banlangen made headlines earlier this year when it was touted as a possible coronavirus remedy. But in southwestern China, the herb is mostly used as a dye for clothing.

Tie-dye might invoke images of the 1960s, hippies, and Woodstock, but what about the Bai people of southwestern China?

For over 1,500 years, this ethnic group in Yunnan Province has been dying their clothes blue using the leaves of a plant locally called banlangen 板蓝根.

In the West, it’s more commonly known as woad or Asp of Jerusalem.

Tie-dye shirts made with banlangen in Yunnan, China.
Tie-dye shirts made with banlangen in Yunnan, China. / Photo: Guo Yong

The story goes that Bai farmers discovered the plant’s dying capabilities when their clothes were stained blue by its leaves.

“Then they figured out it could be used to dye their clothes,” says Zhang Jianyi, a tie-dye instructor in Dali, Yunnan.

(Read more: Bringing indigenous Chinese textiles into the luxury fashion market)

Banlangen is harvested in the summer, around July and August. The leaves are left to ferment for a few months before being turned into a blue dye.

Zhang’s parents taught her how to tie-dye when she was growing up.

“We don’t consider tie-dying a profession,” she says. “From when we were young, our parents did it, so we slowly learned how to do it, too.”

Zhang Jianyi stirs a blue dye made from banlangen at her workshop in Yunnan, China.
Zhang Jianyi stirs a blue dye made from banlangen at her workshop in Yunnan, China. / Photo: Guo Yong

Banlangen is not only used to make dye. The plant’s roots and leaves are ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine.

“We might take a few leaves and make tea,” says Zhang, who drinks it as a flu remedy.

Banlangen made headlines earlier this year when a prominent doctor in China suggested it might be effective against the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Shares of a traditional Chinese medicine maker that sold banlangen soared 10% after the endorsement.

Chinese traditionsTraditional Chinese medicine (TCM)Yunnan

Credit

Producer: Jessica Novia

Videographer: Guo Yong

Editor: Nicholas Ko

Mastering: Joel Roche