Pipa allows Chinese farmers to turn poverty into prosperous note

Wei Ran
Wei Ran
For centuries, Chinese farmers have battled poverty with sickles and hoes. Now, they have new tool: the pipa. 

Wei Ran
Wei Ran
Pipa allows Chinese farmers to turn poverty into prosperous note

Xu Huiping, a villager in Xuchang Village, hangs pipa — a traditional musical instrument in China — at his workshop in central Henan Province. With its abundant paulownia trees, the village is famous for making pipa and other Chinese musical instruments.

For centuries, Chinese farmers have battled poverty with sickles and hoes. Now, they have new tool: the pipa. 

Xuchang Village, of Lankao County in Henan Province, is known as “Pipa Village.” It has abundant paulownia trees, an ideal raw material, and 54 workshops. Four in every five of the 628 villagers make the Chinese version of the lute and other traditional instruments.

They can make more than 50,000 pipa a year with sales exceeding 60 million yuan (US$9.05 million). Some large factories export their instruments.

Frequent floods and sandstorms last century left the area with poor soil and crop failures, but in 1962, Jiao Yulu became Communist Party of China secretary in Lankao and led the locals in planting trees to help soil and water conservation.

In the 1980s, when the trees were thriving, many villagers took up carpentry and sold furniture.

When a professional instrument maker in Shanghai found that instruments made of paulownia sounded clear and melodious, locals began running workshops on the subject.

“We used to sell paulownia as a decorating material, but half a square meter of the wood was only worth 3 or 4 yuan. If we crafted a pipa, it would fetch at least 400 yuan,” says Dai Shiyong, who opened Lankao’s first instrument factory in 1988.

Dai was successful and others followed, despite some early complaints that the instruments were of poor quality.

Xu Huiping left home to become a factory worker in the big cities, but by the 1990s, he was earning just 40 yuan a month at a pipa factory in Kaifeng, about 60km from Lankao. He could barely support his two children and his handicapped wife, and the family was one of the most impoverished in the village. But Xu worked hard and mastered the process of making a pipa after a decade. 

In 2008, he returned and opened a small workshop. Initially, he made fewer than 20 pipa a year. Most sold for more than 1,000 yuan, but they could range up to tens of thousands of yuan.

Xu is very happy in his work: “I work at home. I have more time to take care of my family.”  

This year, Xu bought two machines with a loan supported by the local government. He has received more orders and produced more than 3,000 pipa. 

“I am speeding up, so I can complete all the orders.” 

Instrument-making has lifted 102 people in Xuchang Village out of poverty and three families have opened workshops like Xu. 

“The annual income of the poorest people has surged from 1,400 yuan in 2014 to 3,500 yuan,” says Xu Shunhai, the village Party chief. 

In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Lankao twice as part of a campaign to pair top Party officials with poor areas.

That year, about 11.8 percent of Lankao’s population lived in poverty. County authorities made a commitment to cast off poverty in three years and achieve moderate prosperity in seven years.

In March, Lankao exited the national list of impoverished counties. Its poverty ratio is down to 1.27 percent.

About 7,000 residents now run instrument-making workshops or factories, employing 65,000 people.

Xu Huiping’s favorite pieces are two pipa that he gave to his daughter, Xu Siqian, on her 7th and 18th birthdays. He carved his name and poems on the soundboards, which were made of premium materials. Each could have sold 50,000 yuan.

“But they are priceless,” says Xu, with a humble smile. 

Xu Siqian, 20, started college last year and majors in music. She plays the pipa at home on breaks, drawing cheers and applause from the neighbors and making her father proud.

The industry has also promoted music study.

At weekends, parents send their children to music classes and almost every primary school now offers the national music curriculum.

Lankao is planning a “music village” where professionals from across the country can hold concerts.

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