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Zhao Xiaohui, from Jiuzhou village in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, shows silk balls she embroidered. Nearly 1,000 people in the village make a living embroidering silk balls. [Zhou Hua/Xinhua]

NANNING - Saying "I love you" is one way to show affection. But for centuries women in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region have preferred a more subtle gesture: giving hand-embroidered balls of silk.

Guangxi residents, mainly ethnic minorities, grow up with traditions involving crafts and folk songs, and their colorful silk love balls have long been a symbol of local culture. They appear in all manner of Chinese cultural events.

Jiuzhoujie is a small border town in Guangxi, and is the center of the silk ball tradition. Almost every home is involved in crafting the 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 dressed in ethnic clothes, 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 that displays the various balls in all their bright colors.

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

The silk balls go back more than 2,000 years, but they were not born of love. Far from it. The balls were once made of bronze and were used as a 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", said Li Fuqiang, a silk ball expert.

The grain has now been replaced by sawdust, making them lighter and easier to carry.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

The silk balls are not only an example of cultural heritage but also a key to growing wealth. The cheapest go for 15 yuan ($2.3), but more luxurious ones can 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 come with deep emotional attachment.

Huang Xiaoqin, 73, is recognized in the town as the most skilled. 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 a woman saw a man she liked, she would toss a ball for him to catch. Men lucky (or unlucky) enough to catch balls would throw them back tied to a small gifts. If the woman accepted the gift, it meant she had agreed to a date.

The popularity of the silk balls faded during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) but they"ve regained their luster and helped boost tourism. Huang has begun teaching a new generation.

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.

Yet every year, on the third day of the third lunar month, the Zhuang people have a big celebration. The throwing of silk balls returns, and love is found the old-fashioned way for a time.