Who created batik? Who appropriated batik?

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This is something I wanted to write about back in mid-July, but it fell victim to my backlog of thousands of e-mails.  Now, slowly, slowly, slowly, I'm catching up, and I find that it's still a worthy topic to post on.

"‘China, master copycat’: uproar in Indonesia at Xinhua’s batik claim"

Xinhua released a video saying batik is a traditional craft ‘common among ethnic groups in China’, sparking protests by Indonesians on social media

There are long-standing disputes over the origins of food and traditions such as batik, rendang and nasi lemak among Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore

Randy Mulyanto, SCMP 7/14/20

China’s state news agency Xinhua sparked an online uproar and unwittingly waded into a long-running rivalry between Indonesia and Malaysia, when it shared a video on Sunday that described batik – the art of decorating textiles with wax and dye – as a “traditional craft common among ethnic groups in China”.

The post on Twitter, which came with a 49-second video, said the craft was practised by “ethnic minority groups living in Guizhou and Yunnan”, referring to two of China’s southwestern provinces.

It drew cries of cultural appropriation from hundreds of Indonesians on social media. The video also prompted Indonesia’s foreign ministry to suggest that a correction was needed, after which Xinhua made another post describing batik as “a word with Indonesian origin that refers to a wax-resist dyeing technique practised in many parts of the world”.

Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesman from Indonesia’s foreign ministry, said one of his colleagues informally informed Xinhua that the word batik was rooted in the Javanese tradition in batik-making techniques within the Indonesian culture.

“Xinhua admitted the mistake for not knowing that the word batik comes from the Javanese vocabulary. Moreover, the Indonesian batik has also been recognised by Unesco,” he said. The United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural organisation inscribed Indonesia’s batik craft in 2009 as a form of intangible heritage.

At the heart of the controversy lies the word "batik" which is widely used around the world.  The article has a section discussing it.


Dwi Woro Retno Mastuti, lecturer at the Javanese Studies Programme of the University of Indonesia, said the word batik comes from the Javanese word of ambatik – of which amba means to write, and tik means to make a mark using canting, a pen-like tool used by batik artisans to apply hot liquid wax on the cloth.

Mastuti said in the country, batik is referred to as a “technique of making patterns” using a canting or a stamp, dyeing the cloth and blocking the wax so the fabric would not be mixed with other colours when painted on the cloth.

Experts, however, believe that it would be an overstatement for Indonesians to label batik as a purely Indonesian craft, because it has cultural influences from outside the country.

Agni Malagina, an independent researcher on Chinese-Indonesian affairs, said batik in the northern and southern coasts of Indonesia’s major island of Java has “dominant” Chinese influences in its motifs.

One cannot ignore the “influences of batik from” the time of its origins, Malagina said, referring to the time when the country was still ruled by Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms, and the fact that batik also absorbed Chinese and other foreign cultural elements.

The current controversy over batik comes at a time of heightened conflict between Indonesia and China over a number of significant issues, such as Indonesian crew members being abused on Chinese ships, Chinese workers arriving in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese ships making incursions into the country’s exclusive economic zone and the Indonesia government actually having to sink some of them, and so on.  Considering the enormous importance of batik for their country's economy and identity, it is easy to understand why the Indonesian people are so sensitive about Chinese disregard of batik as a core cultural symbol for them.

Although the word "batik" is clearly of Javanese origin, the technique of resist dying has a much deeper history than can be explained solely from an Indonesian standpoint.

Resist dyeing has been very widely used in Eurasia and Africa since ancient times. The first discoveries of pieces of linen was from Egypt and date from the fourth century AD. Cloth, used for mummy wrappings, was coated with wax, scratched with a sharp stylus, and dyed with a mixture of blood and ashes. After dyeing the cloth was washed in hot water to remove the wax. In Asia, this technique was practiced in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), in India and Japan in the Nara period (645–794 AD). In Africa it was originally practiced by the Yoruba people in Nigeria, and the Soninke and Wolof in Senegal.

Traditions using wax or paste

    Guizhou Province of China had a strong tradition of wax dyeing
    Indonesia, Malaysia and India – Batik with wax
    Japan – Rōketsuzome with wax, Katazome, Yūzen and Tsutsugaki with rice-paste
    Africa – Yoruba people of Nigeria uses cassava paste as a resist while the people of Senegal use rice paste. Among other terms, Madiba.

Traditions using tying or stitching

    Indonesia, Malaysia, and Philippines – Ikat, where only the warp or weft is dyed (article covers similar techniques elsewhere).
    Yoruba people in Nigeria – Adire
    Modern West – Tie-dye
    Japan – Shibori

Traditions using printing

    Japan- Katagami and Bingata with stencils
    China – about 500 AD the jia xie method for dyeing (usually silk) using wood blocks was invented. An upper and a lower block is made, with carved out compartments opening to the back, fitted with plugs. The cloth, usually folded a number of times, is inserted and clamped between the two blocks. By unplugging the different compartments and filling them with dyes of different colours, a multi-coloured pattern can be printed over quite a large area of folded cloth.

Other traditions

A mix of modern and traditional — Ukrainian pysanky

    Ukraine, Russia and Poland – Pysanka, with wax for eggs at Easter


Another Indonesian type of resist dyeing is ikat.  It is used to pattern textiles by resist dyeing of the yarns before they are woven into the fabric.

Ikat is an Indonesian word, which depending on context, can be the nouns: cord, thread, knot, or bundle, also the finished ikat fabric, as well as the verbs "to tie" or "to bind". While the term ikatan is a noun for bond or tie. It has a direct etymological relation to Javanese language of the same word, and also various Indonesian languages from Sumatra, Borneo, Java, Bali, Sulawesi, to Sumba, Flores and Timor. Thus, the name of the finished ikat woven fabric originates from the tali (threads, ropes) being ikat (tied, bound, knotted) before they are being put in celupan (dyed by way of dipping), then berjalin (woven, intertwined) resulting in a berjalin ikat– reduced to ikat.

The introduction of the term ikat into European language is attributed to Rouffaer. Ikat is now a generic English loanword used to describe the process and the cloth itself regardless of where the fabric was produced or how it is patterned.


I recall from my many trips to Eastern Central Asia (ECA; aka Xinjiang ["New Territories"]; Eastern Turkestan; Uyghurstan) that the local people have an elaborate and much beloved textile that they call "atlas", which is a type of ikat.

Uyghurs call it atlas* (IPA [ɛtlɛs]) and use it only for woman's clothing. The historical record indicates that there were 27 types of atlas during Qing Chinese occupation. Now there are only four types of Uyghur atlas remaining: qara-atlas, a black ikat used for older women's clothing; khoja'e-atlas, a yellow, blue, or purple ikat used for married women; qizil-atlas, a red ikat used for girls; and Yarkent-atlas, a khan or royal atlas.


*From Arabic ʾaṭlas أَطْلَس‎, a rich satin fabric, from the root ط ل س(ṭ-l-s).

(source; source)

Etymologies for "batik"

Javanese technique of textile design, 1880, from Dutch, from Malay (Austronesian) mbatik, said to be from amba "to write" + titik "dot, point."



Malay batek, of Javanese origin, from Proto-Austronesian *beCík, tattoo (from the fact that the original process of piercing the waxed cloth prior to soaking was similar to tattooing).

(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.)


English, Italian, Portuguese

From Dutch batik, from Javanese ꦧꦜꦶꦏ꧀ (bathik).



Burusu and Punan Tubu

From Proto-Malayo-Polynesian *bətik, from Proto-Austronesian *bəCik.



Timugon Murut

From Proto-Malayo-Polynesian *bətik, from Proto-Austronesian *bəCik (tattoo).




From Malay batik, from Javanese bathik.




From Proto-Philippine *batik, doublet of Proto-Malayo-Polynesian *bətik, from Proto-Austronesian *bəCik (tattoo).




From Malay batik, from Javanese bathik.




From Javanese bathik.




Several etymologies have been proposed:


Etymology for "tattoo"

From Tahitian tatau and kindred Polynesian words, all from Proto-Polynesian *tatau.

(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.)

From earlier tattaow, tattow, a borrowing from Samoan tatau (to tap, to strike).


Unlike most languages, Sinitic did not borrow the Javanese word for wax-resist dyeing, but instead just used two Sinitic morphemes that mean "wax dying", làrǎn 蠟染.  An older name for this process was làxié 蠟纈, where the second syllable means "patterned silk" or "tie knot".  In Japanese, "batik" is "batikku バティック", in Korean it is "batig 바틱", and in Vietnamese is it "batik".  Most Indian languages also use some form of the Javanese word for batik, e.g., Bengali "bāṭik বাটিক", Hindi "bāṭik बाटिक", etc.


Selected reading


[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. A. Sasportas said,

    December 20, 2020 @ 12:20 pm

    The disputants will find it useful to bear in mind that the origin of a significans (here, the Javanese word batik) and the origin of the corresponding significatum (here, the fabric in question) are separate matters, so that even if the word is ultimately of Austronesian) origin, the fabric need not have been first used by speakers of an Austronesian language.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 20, 2020 @ 3:22 pm

    Regarding the triliteral Semitic root ط ل س‎ ṭ-l-s of "atlas", I received the following comments:

    from Grant Frame:

    For Akkadian:

    No root ṭ-l-s is listed in the Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, which is based on von Soden's Akkadische Handwörterbuch.
    Nor is there a root t-l-s.
    Nor is there a root '-l-s (which in theory might have had at times a t infix after the ' and before the l).

    from Heather Sharkey:

    Wehr’s Arabic dictionary (p. 564) lists atlas as a word in Arabic meaning satin as well, and also as a volume of geographical maps, but the first Arabic meaning for the root listed, the verb talasa, means “to efface, obliterate, blot out (esp. writing)."

    More telling information comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which cites an English word “atlas” meaning silk, too, first appearing in English in 1687 (with examples also given for 1703, c. 1710, and 1757). The OED traces the etymology of atlas meaning satin to “(ultimately) Arabic atlas, ’smooth, bare’, thence ’smooth silk cloth” from the verb talasa meaning “to rub smooth, delete”. German had the word atlas for satin, too.

    from Sarah Alajmi:

    The word atlas أطلس comes from the root ṭ-l-s َطَلَس

    I think the meaning of the root ṭ-l-s is the following:

    طَلَسَ to wipe away and erase

    Other meanings that are derivative of the root:

    طَلِسَ became atlas أطلس or it became inclined to the color black
    انطلس erased or hidden
    تطلس worn
    الأطلس or atlas – whatever has a dusty to black color – or a silk fabric
    الطلاسة a rug to erase board
    الطيلسان ṭaylasān – a scarf to be worn on shoulders

    There are also other meanings that are available online and in the website you linked. I used my old lexicon Al-Mu'jam Al-Waseet for the preceding information.

    from John Mullan:

    The wiktionary link to T-l-s seems to cover a lot of the same ground as any of the English-Arabic dictionaries do. I’ve attached a few screenshots* if you’ve any interest in taking a look. The ‘obliteration / effacement’ angle seems to be the main part of it. The two nouns reproduced in all of the pages below are Tils (a written/blotted out page) and Tallāsah (a rag used for wiping a writing tablet).

    *VHM: Omitted here. Some of the meanings for words derived from the root ṭ-l-s in the dictionaries reproduced by John are: "efface, obliterate, blot out (something, esp. writing); illegible; erasing rag, wiping rag; satin; erase writing; lose eyesight; be thrown into prison; be of an ash / dusty color; be effaced (writing); (wrap oneself in) a Persian mantle; hood; be concealed, involved in a mystery (affair); written paper; obliterated (writing); old, shabby (clothes); glabrous wolf (i.e., a wolf whose hair has fallen out by degrees); a wolf of a dusty color inclining to blackness or anything of that color (e.g., a garment); a man wearing clothes of such a dusty hue; black and dirty; a man who is accused of foul, or evil, conduct; a blackish, dust color; rags for wiping; blind; glabrous, smooth; black(ish); suspicious character; (a garment or piece of cloth) that has become old and worn-out; traces / tracks / footsteps became concealed or unapparent (e.g., as of a beast); the skin of the thigh of a camel when the hair has fallen off; having the eyes blinded; a man having little hair on the side of the cheek; dirty or filthy, esp. applied to a garment or piece of cloth; dusty hue; black, as an Abyssinian.

    from Michael Carasik:

    Post-biblical Hebrew has תלשׁ (which does not occur in the Bible), meaning to “uproot.” It is in Aramaic and Syriac as well.

    I am imaginative enough to draw a connection between this word and yours — but not one I really believe in.

  3. Noel Hunt said,

    December 20, 2020 @ 8:28 pm

    It would be remiss not to point out that 'bingata' (紅型) is Okinawan, the designs being quite distinct from mainland Japan.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 20, 2020 @ 8:38 pm

    I would think there would be other situations where: 1) some practice or type of object not found in traditional Western societies (and thus not having a prior word for it in the Western languages) is found, quite possibly via independent development, in multiple non-Western societies in various different parts of the world which each have their own word (from different languages possibly from different language families) for it; and 2) due to some contingent historical event, the word in one of those languages ends up as the loanword that becomes standard in the major Western languages to describe the practice/object in all societies where it is found, not just in the specific context of the society from which the loanword was borrowed. Are there previous instances of this leading to bad feelings like this? I must say that ex ante it would seem just as likely that the PRC would complain about their "làrǎ" being wrongly called "batik" in the foreign press.

  5. Chris Button said,

    December 20, 2020 @ 8:49 pm

    Unlike most languages, Sinitic did not borrow the Javanese word for wax-resist dyeing, but instead just used two Sinitic morphemes that mean "wax dying", làrǎn 蠟染. An older name for this process was làxié 蠟纈, where the second syllable means "patterned silk" or "tie knot"

    Incidentally, we've previously discussed on LLog Ferlus's suggestion that 蠟 is a borrowing from Proto-Vietnamese.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    December 21, 2020 @ 10:09 am

    From an anonymous colleague:

    As you can see from the attached pdf of pages from Lane’s classical Arabic dictionary (starting in the middle of the 2nd column on p. 1806), the verb ṭalasa means ’to efface’ (especially writing); a stative form, ṭalisa means ’to be(come) worn out’; the adjectival form ʔaṭlas (two-thirds of the way down the left-hand column on p. 1807) means ‘worn out’ but also ‘hairless’. The ’satin’ meaning is at the top of the middle column; Lane speculates there that the latter meaning is ‘app[arently] because of its smoothness’, and also notes that the Arab lexicographers say that it is not a classical usage. But whether ʔaṭlas ’satin’ is actually derived from that root is uncertain; it could be a loan into Arabic; I see that Wehr, in his standard Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, lists it separately from the verbal root ṭalasa.

    The other pdf attached below is from the Dictionnaire des racines sémitiques (ed. D. Cohen et al.), fascicle 10; on p. 1080 is the root ṭ-l-s, where it is noted that it also occurs in Ethiopian Semitic, where it means ‘become dark, go out (fire)’; on pp. 1082-3 is ṭ-l-š, which occurs in Aramaic (Syriac) and in Arabic with the meaning ‘become old, soiled, dirty’. Phonetically, at least, those two roots may in fact be one proto-Semitic root.

    [VHM: pdfs omitted here]

  7. Frank L. Chance said,

    December 21, 2020 @ 12:13 pm

    " In Japanese, "batik" is "batikku バティック""
    One might note that while batikku バティックis used for imported resist-dyed fabrics in Japan, there are native terms as well.
    First off, fabrics imported from the south (including India, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia) were generally called sarasa (更紗) of which batik is one type. A native term for the technique is 蝋結染 rōketsuzome, literally wax-blank dyeing. When done with a stencil or wood-block to apply the resist it can be called katazome 型染, and the Okinawan 紅型 bingata is a specific example of this, known from fourteenth-century examples.
    There is also a Japanese term for tie-dye, 絞り染め shiborizome, literally wrung dyeing, so named because the ties "wring out" the dye from the fibers.

  8. E. J. W. Barber said,

    December 22, 2020 @ 1:47 pm

    Resist dyeing is something that seems to have been thought up more than once, in different places. In addition to the various Eastern traditions, we have both examples and a verbal description of the process from around 400 BCE among the "Scythians" and the Greek colonists along the north shore of the Black Sea. The preserved example comes from Kertch (ancient Pantikapaion)–remains of a huge funerary cloth resist-dyed in 3 colors with band after band of mythological characters and foliage–and Herodotus (1.203) actually describes the people in that area doing a form of resist dyeing. (Much later, Pliny (35.42.150) describes the Egyptians as consummate resist-dyers by his time.) Summarized, with pictures and further references, in my PREHISTORIC TEXTILES (Princeton, 1991)–use the thorough index to find what you want.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    December 26, 2020 @ 5:44 pm

    From Michele Thompson:

    I know absolutely nothing about the origins of the word batik but having read the whole article that Victor sent out I do have an opinion as to why it is a prominent form of fabric art among “minorities” in certain parts of China. Both honey and beeswax were gathered from wild bees all over Southeast Asia and southeastern China almost exclusivly by minority peoples who then sold both products to the ethnic majority groups of where ever they happened to live. Bee keeping is an extremely recent development. The ethnic majority groups then sometimes resold both products onto the international market or sent them to China as tribute. Therefore it was ethnic minorities that, at least at first, had an extensive supply of beeswax.

    I found information on this through looking into honey and beeswax as items with medicinal uses that were also common forms of tribute from Dai Viet to China.

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