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Weaving financial independence into women's lives

Top: A piece of embroidery from China's Dongxiang autonomous county. Above: Ms Ma Xiaoxiao (front row, third from right), founder of a female artisans factory, with some of the embroiderers.
Above: A piece of embroidery from China's Dongxiang autonomous county. PHOTO: DAI QIAN, COURTESY OF WANG XIAODONG
Top: A piece of embroidery from China's Dongxiang autonomous county. Above: Ms Ma Xiaoxiao (front row, third from right), founder of a female artisans factory, with some of the embroiderers.
Above: Ms Ma Xiaoxiao (front row, third from right), founder of a female artisans factory, with some of the embroiderers.PHOTO: DAI QIAN, COURTESY OF WANG XIAODONG

Embroidery factory in Chinese county liberates women from crippling poverty

When Ma Xiaoxiao was 10 years old, she moved with her parents from the small Chinese village of Daban to Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province, where she worked in the restaurant, textile and Internet cafe industries.

"When I travelled back and visited our neighbours' families, it was the same as 20 years ago - when guests visited, the women wouldn't appear. They were required to take care of the whole family but not themselves," recalls Ms Ma, who is now in her 20s.

She made up her mind to do something about it.

Daban is in the Dongxiang autonomous county, where the people are among the poorest and least educated of China's 55 ethnic minority groups.

In 2017, the average annual income was about US$750 (S$1,020), and the average person received only 7.2 years of education.

Ms Ma returned home last year and set up "The 13 Skilled Female Artisans" embroidery factory with the aim of preserving local traditions and liberating Dongxiang women from crippling poverty and crushing family burdens.

She felt that this was a good way to help them gain financial independence along with a greater sense of self-worth and accomplishment.

In comparison with the great silk embroidery traditions of southern China, Dongxiang-style embroidery is less delicate, but more bold and brightly coloured.

To better understand her cultural heritage, Ms Ma visited the village's best embroiderer Tangnu Geiye, now in her 70s.

The older woman told Ms Ma that traditionally the Dongxiang people embroidered everything from undergarments to door curtains. She showed some of the beautiful works that she had made in her heyday, including a stunning pillowcase specially prepared for her daughter's wedding.

Light purple, loudspeaker-shaped morning glory flowers were intricately stitched using a technique unique to Dongxiang.

At a local museum, Ms Ma saw an exquisite gown of about 150 years old that was embroidered with flowers. It made her realise that these traditions were not just a form of handicraft, but also works of art.

 

But these skills were dying out and remained largely hidden from view, often used to decorate and strengthen the insoles of shoes.

"We cannot be the generation responsible for the disappearance of the Dongxiang people's embroidery traditions," she says.

She decided to take these hidden patterns and put them on everyday objects such as lanterns, handkerchiefs, pictures and tea coasters.

Despite an initial investment of around US$15,000 in her project, after just three months she was overdrawn on three credit cards and for the first time in her life experienced a shortage of cash.

She also struggled to find skilled embroiderers. But she managed to turn things around.

To enlist workers, she had to trek through the snow to visit each household bearing gifts to explain her project. One by one, the women came until there were more than 10 embroiderers, some just 20 years old, some over 60.

They were paid around US$3 a piece for simple, high-quality products. By the end of the month, most of the women were earning more than 10 times that.

Ms Ma said seeing their expressions on getting their first salaries made all of the hard work worthwhile.

For the first time, they could buy their own clothes and make-up, and no longer had to turn to the men in their family for money. •

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 30, 2019, with the headline 'Weaving financial independence into women's lives'. Print Edition | Subscribe