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by Xinhua writers Yuan Quan Comprar Air Max 97 Summit White , Cao Yiming

NANNING, Dec. 19 (Xinhua) -- Telling a man, "I love you," is one way to show your affection, but for centuries women in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region have preferred a more subtle gesture: the gifting of hand-embroidered balls of silk.

Guangxi locals, mainly from ethnic minorities, love crafts and folk songs, and their colorful silk love balls have long-been been a symbol of Guangxi culture, appearing in all manner of Chinese cultural events.

Jiuzhoujie is a small border town in Guangxi and the "home of the silk balls." Almost every home is involved in crafting these balls of love, and the town makes more than 300,000 of the romantic trinkets every year.

The local women can easily be seen sitting outside their homes dessed in ethnic costume, diligently embroidering and selling the balls to tourists.

Li Li, 40, is one of the many silk ball makers in the region. She learned the craft from her mother-in-law, and taught her three daughters. Li even has a shop, which displays the various silk balls in all their bright colors.

She says a silk ball usually takes 15 days to make, and "it can only be made by hand, not machine." You can see band aids on her fingers, needed after small cuts from the tough work.

The silk balls go back more than 2,000 years, but their beginings were not born of love. Far from it. They used to be made of bronze and were used as a lethal weapon in times of war. Only later did people begin to cover them in bright silk, even filling them with rice and grain.

They usually have 12 "petals," or cone shaped silk bags, which in ancient times were filled with red beans or grain before being embroidered with birds or flowers as a sign of good luck.

"[They symbolized that] people expected a double rice harvest and romance," says Li Fuqiang, a silk ball expert.

The grain has now been replaced by sawdust, making them lighter and easier to carry. Some even fill them with fragrant medicinal herbs, doubling their value.

The silk ball are not only a sign of cultural heritage, but are also a key to growing wealth. The cheapest go for 15 yuan, but more luxurious ones sell for over 200.

Li's orders mostly come from online shops across the country. On top of growing rice, she can earn an extra 3,000 yuan a year by making the bright silky balls.

For others, the balls are a matter of deep emotional attachment.

Huang Xiaoqin, 73, is the best craftswoman in the town. She learned embroidery as a teenager, and remembers the old dating custom, Throwing the Silk Ball.

Men and women would be divided into groups and sing impromptu songs. If the women saw someone liked, they would toss the balls for the men to catch. Men lucky (or unlucky) enough to catch a ball would throw them back tied with a small gift. If the woman accepted the gift, it meant she had agreed to date.

However when Huang got married in 1960s, people were not finding their lovers this way. The cultural revolution meant many belived "Old Culture" was something to be frowned upon. Huang, like most people, did not dare to embroider at this time.

But the silk balls have regained their popularity and helped boost tourism. Huang has begun teaching the younger generation.

Huang was nominated as a representative of the craft by Guangxi government in 1997. She has mastered a unique skill, "duixiu," which requires complicate stitching that can give the images on the ball a 3D look.

Making such a ball can take up to a month, and few of her students are interested in learning. They are just interested in making as many they can, in the shortest time, to make as much money as possible.

"I prefer the silk balls of 1980s. They had clever designs, exquisite craftsmanship and pretty images," says Wang Weiqun. "Today's silk balls look too ordinary. I can't see what's special about them."

The culture has changed too. Chinese lovers now prefer to show their romantic side with bold and ostentatious displays of wealth, showing their affection in public and spending money on luxury presents. Few have the patience for the implicit expression of love the balls once represented.

Despite being known as "the last master" of the craft, Huang still feels alone. But every year, on the third day of the third lunar month, the Zhuang people hold a large celebration, the Throwing Silk Balls tradition returns, and finding love the old-fashioned way once again comes alive.

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