Embroidery is weaving a new way of life for the women of Dongxiang

Hu Jun
Yang Yang Hu Jun Zhou Shengjie
An embroidery workshop in Dongxiang not only brought hope to the women's ethnic minority, but also lifted a community out of poverty while protecting its cultural heritage. 

Hu Jun
Yang Yang Hu Jun Zhou Shengjie
Directed by Hu Jun. Shot by Zhou Shengjie, Andy Boreham, Dai Qian and Hu Jun. Edited by Hu Jun. Subtitles by Yang Yang and Emma Leaning.

A highway from Lanzhou, capital city of China’s northwest Gansu Province, to the region’s Dongxiang Ethnic Minority County in Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, shows how the people there took pains to bargain with their mountains to build roads. As the road meanders further, it cuts through the Xigu Tunnel, Guang’s Plateau Tunnel, Mou’s Great Mountain Tunnel, Jia’s Mountain Tunnel, Tile Stone Mountain Tunnel, West Mountain Ridge Tunnel and Gang’s Barracks Tunnel, until it reaches the last No. 7 Road Girder Tunnel toward Dongxiang. A traveler might have a slight feeling of claustrophobia due to the length of the tunnels as their vehicle advances, then a bright dot of exit emerges and sunshine penetrates.

Embroidery is weaving a new way of life for the women of Dongxiang
Hu Jun / SHINE

A bird's-eye view of the landscape in Dongxiang, Gansu Province

“It was winter when I first visited Dongxiang. A lack of water caused the soil there to be exposed. When a gust of wind passed, dust drifted. So later when I saw flamboyant Chinese peony in front of many households, I thought they were fake. But residents told me the flowers were real. And they looked well tended.

“People in Dongxiang don’t complain about their place. They cherish a hope,” said Zhao Yan, who is from Shanghai and chief secretary of Xihan Action, a public welfare project devoted to the inheritance of traditional Chinese culture and a better life for craftspeople and disadvantaged groups.

This was Zhao’s third time visiting Dongxiang and she was bringing with her a package of sample face masks with Dongxiang embroidery patterns on them.

The face masks were designed for free by Australian designers invited by Xihan Action. They then underwent a redesign that added embroidery patterns in Dongxiang duoxiu, or peck stitch embroidery, based on suggestions from a Dongxiang local intangible culture inheritor. Temperature control technology developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences was also used in making the masks.

Zhao was to show the samples to Ma Xiaoxiao, a local anti-poverty leader and founder of the Dongxiang Embroidery Workshop for Poverty Alleviation, and Axiye Ma, a prefecture-level Dongxiang embroidery intangible cultural inheritor and the assistant sample producer for the embroidery pattern on the masks. 

Embroidery is weaving a new way of life for the women of Dongxiang
Hu Jun / SHINE

A face mask which features a Dongxiang embroidery pattern

Coverings for all ages

Traditional Dongxiang ethnic minority costumes include a Hui hat or a covering for the women. Single women wear a frilled Hui hat in bright colors and married women wear a covering that wraps around their hair. A covering’s color also differs in accordance with a woman’s age: they wear a green covering when they are young; black when they become middle-aged and white when they are getting old.

At Ma Xiaoxiao’s Dongxiang Embroidery Workshop for Poverty Alleviation, embroiderers of different ages wear Hui hats or coverings. They raise their heads and take a bashful glance when a stranger enters the house, then quickly resume their work at their sewing machines.

Embroidery is weaving a new way of life for the women of Dongxiang
Hu Jun / SHINE

Ma Xiaoxiao picks fruit in the back garden of her embroidery workshop for poverty alleviation. Though a drought-prone region, it is common in Dongxiang for people to tend a garden at the back of their houses.

Ma, a Dongxiang native, left her hometown with her parents to live and study in Lanzhou when she was a teenager. She returned to Dongxiang to visit relatives after she graduated from college and by chance got to know more about the place’s embroidery traditions. Then, a mission was nurtured and Ma set up the workshop in July 2018.

She recruited a group of local women as embroiderers with the aim of reviving the intangible cultural heritage while improving their lives.

“My childhood memories about my hometown are as sweet as an animation episode. I would go catching fish and scooping tadpoles in a creek with my little friends; houses in the village were decorated with glazed roof tiles and painted steel gray; at dusk when each household was preparing dinner, smoke would rise up straight from the chimneys,” Ma recalled.

During one of her visits, Ma met one of her childhood friends.

“She had already been the mother of four children. When asked, she told me she had quit school after she finished elementary school education. There were other guests when I visited her. She was not allowed to join in the conversation and only peeked at the sitting room through the slit on a door and talked in a hushed voice with me,” said Ma.

Doing embroidery in her spare time was her only hobby. A lifestyle like hers was quite common among Dongxiang women.

“Then I thought about setting up a poverty alleviation workshop to allow the local women to have some income. In accordance with an income, their family status would change,” said Ma.

The workshop, a renovated family courtyard that covers about 400 square meters, has recruited 230 rural women as embroiderers. Among them, 167 work at home. Supported by the local government, a women’s social organization and some enterprises, the workshop, since it was established, has offered training in Dongxiang embroidery to more than 200 local women willing to become involved in the trade.

“One of my embroiderers, a middle-aged woman, was an illiterate person when she entered my workshop, and she had never held a pen before. Now she has to use a pen to write her signature when collecting her salary from me. She said she felt excited every time she wrote her signature, describing the moment as more exhilarating than the next moment when she received her payment,” said Ma.

“Dongxiang embroidery is important for the local women. Unlike girls living in a big city who may speak in a spoiled manner to their parents, women in Dongxiang normally don’t have a person to talk to in their families. So they place their feelings and thoughts in their embroidery patterns. Compared with embroideries in other places in China, Dongxiang embroidery is more plain and basic, and its colors brighter. It is like the local women, who are not good at expressing their feelings and who nonetheless are longing for a colorful life,” Ma added. 

Embroidery is weaving a new way of life for the women of Dongxiang
Hu Jun / SHINE

A sitting room in a Dongxiang household. Works of Dongxiang embroidery are often used as interior decorations like tapestries.

Arrival brought good news

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic caused the volume of orders at the poverty alleviation workshop to dip. As a self-help solution, Ma and the embroiderers took orders to make industrial sacks as a subsidiary business.

Zhao’s arrival brought good news for members of the workshop.

The first batch of face masks had been made in cooperation with embroiderers at Ma’s workshop — the women did the embroidery patterns.

Some of the masks had been purchased for public welfare advertising by the China Women’s Development Foundation (CWDF), a nationwide foundation for the welfare of women, and Country Garden Holdings, a top home builder in China whose corporate social responsibility includes poverty alleviation in Dongxiang.

Deng Yaping, an Olympic champion and sports celebrity in China, also made a contribution and purchased some of the masks.

The face masks are also being promoted in a mask claim activity of the Tencent 99 Giving Day, an annual public welfare event launched by the Chinese tech giant on September 9. Each of the face masks, once claimed by a donor (at 99 yuan each, US$14.55), will be equalized to two working hours’ salary and later paid to the Dongxiang embroiderers. For donors who made more contributions (there’s a maximum limit), the donations will be used for the general women’s cause, including supporting the future development of Dongxiang embroidery.

In addition, after the face masks enter their market sales stage (128 yuan each), 5 percent of the sales revenue will go to Ma’s embroiderers through the CWDF, which means more future orders for Ma’s workshop.

Zhao and her Xihan Action were introduced to Ma through a recommendation by the CWDF and Country Garden Holdings in June.

Embroidery is weaving a new way of life for the women of Dongxiang
Hu Jun / SHINE

Ma Xiaoxiao (left), an anti-poverty leader in Dongxiang, talks with Zhao Yan, chief secretary of Xihan Action, about patterns on a new embroidery work.

“Xiaoxiao struck me as a slim and tiny girl, yet with a huge capacity and a dream,” said Zhao. “I wanted to help her on seeing her. I told her, ‘I am going to teach you how to run an embroidery workshop, how to market an embroidery work as goods, how to do market research, how to advertise your goods through live broadcasting and how to sign contracts with business people. I will teach you everything as long as you are willing to learn.’ The whole conservation lasted for more than an hour. On leaving, she hugged me and expressed her gratitude,” Zhao recalled.

As a public welfare project to support traditional Chinese culture, Xihan Action normally offers academic support including recording an intangible cultural heritage item in its database, showcasing a delicate cultural artwork at international exhibitions and supporting craftspeople through helping to found local companies, factories or cooperatives and then mass produce their work.

“We hope we can teach a man how to fish instead of simply giving him a fish. We will teach the local people to value copyrights and sign contracts to protect their rights, and how to control costs in order to adapt themselves to the market,” said Zhao.

“Any intangible cultural heritage item needs its local people to inherit and preserve it. Outside parties only offer help. As for poverty alleviation through preserving and developing the local intangible cultural heritage, it depends on the locals to adopt a proper mindset to change their conditions and explore their own resources. What the outside parties have offered will finally be erased through comparison and price competition in the market,” Zhao said.

Described by Ma as a “metropolitan lady who is always helpful in spite of keeping a busy working schedule,” Zhao regards her offering as reciprocal for herself.

“Developed regions and the inland regions can be reciprocal for each other. The more the two places are linked, the better each is to help the other. Developed regions can benefit from the inland regions from their spiritual growth, whereas the inland regions can benefit from the developed regions from their economic achievements,” said Zhao. 

County town torn apart

At 6:55pm on March 2, 2011, a devastating geological disaster — land subsidence — happened in Dongxiang. Though no casualties were reported, the county town was torn apart. Buildings of various kinds and the majority of infrastructure were in ruins and the economic losses were huge.

To recover from the losses, both the central and the provincial-level governments spent 1.987 billion yuan on reconstruction of the county town within two or three years.

More investment was made to further renovate the ethnic minority county.

Now Dongxiang has a brand new commercial street, a Muslim food court, market, guest reception center, residential area, schools, kindergartens, a folk museum, parks, squares and other basic urban infrastructure.

In particular, a Dongxiang embroidery hub to further develop duoxiu both as an art form and as an important local trade was unveiled on September 18. Nan Jing, assistant secretary of the CWDF, Zhang Zhaoda, a renowned Chinese designer helping enrich the local embroidery art, and industrialization poverty alleviation officials of Country Garden Holdings gave presentations at the opening ceremony.

The embroidery hub will serve as an exhibition center for Dongxiang duoxiu, as well as a training center for local women. The 18th Dongxiang Embroidery Training Class began at the hub on September 18.

Embroidery is weaving a new way of life for the women of Dongxiang
Hu Jun / SHINE

Local ethnic minority women attend the18th Dongxiang Embroidery Training Class. 

Embroidery is weaving a new way of life for the women of Dongxiang
Hu Jun / SHINE

Axiye Ma, a prefecture-level Dongxiang embroidery intangible cultural inheritor, holds a basket of embroidery tools.

Axiye Ma, a prefecture-level Dongxiang embroidery intangible cultural inheritor, is one of the lecturers.

The 50-year-old has been engaged in embroidery for more than four decades. Her work was awarded top prize during the 1st Dongxiang Embroidery Competition in 2017. She is also a backbone embroiderer at Ma Xiaoxiao’s poverty-alleviation workshop.

“When I was young, my mother didn’t allow me to do embroidery at first. She was afraid that I might be too clumsy and waste the embroidery materials. But I secretly practiced embroidery and when my mother saw my work, which turned out to be quite good, she changed her mind and allowed me to learn the skill. She asked me to embroider not only my own dowry, but also the dowries of my cousins,” Axiye Ma recalled.

Though leading an impoverished life in a mountainous region, Axiye Ma didn’t give up education for her offspring. Four out of her five children were enrolled in Lanzhou City University, Gansu Agricultural University, Northwest Normal University and Xidian University, whereas the yearly college enrolment number in Guoyuan Town of Dongxiang, where she lives, is about four or five students.

“My eldest daughter missed her education opportunity because there was no elementary school available at that time. Now she is running a restaurant. And I am also teaching her how to do embroidery,” said Axiye Ma.

So far Axiye Ma has participated in six sessions of Dongxiang embroidery training and has trained more than 100 embroiderers.

“Dongxiang embroidery is a treasured local intangible cultural heritage. I told my students to learn it well and I also promised them that I will teach them well. So we will work together to pass the heritage from one generation to the next,” said Axiye Ma.

Embroidery is weaving a new way of life for the women of Dongxiang
Hu Jun / SHINE

An embroidery work in progress

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