Young Female Entrepreneur Sets Up Factory in Hometown Transforming the Fortunes of Dongxiang Embroiderers
Shen Qing|Kim Taylor
/SOURCE : yicai

(Yicai Global) Aug. 6 -- 49-year-old Ma Axiye has been dreaming of buying a new computer for her youngest son studying at Xi'an University of Electronics, Science and Technology. For a Dongxiang ethnic minority woman living in a small town deep in China's Far West province of Gansu, without the hope of gainful employment she would never have had the chance to make this dream come true.

So she was very grateful to have found a job at the "The 13 Skilled Female Artisans" embroidery factory. The factory was set up last yearby fellow villagerand entrepreneur Ma Xiaoxiao with the aim of preserving local traditions and liberating Dongxiang women from crippling poverty and crushing family burdens.

The Dongxiang people are considered to be amongst the poorest and least educated of China's 55 ethnic minority groups. In 2017 the average annual income was around USD750, and the average person only received 7.2 years of education. They mainly live an agrarian lifestyle, raising sheep and growing potatoes, barley, millet, wheat and corn. 

A conservative mindset restricts the women to staying at home to dedicate themselves to raising their children and doing laborious household chores. 

"Honestly, I could not imagine spending my whole life living like this," said Ma Xiaoxiao.

Now in her 20s, Ma Xiaoxiao is part of a new generation of young Chinese returning from the cities to their hometowns in the countryside.When she was 10 years old, she moved with her parents from the small village of Daban to Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu, and from there she worked in the restaurant, textile and internet café industries.

"When I travelled back and visited our neighbors' families, to my surprise, 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," recalled Ma Xiaoxiao who made up her mind to do something about it and give back to her hometown.

With a population of just 20,000, Daban is part of the Dongxiang ethnic autonomous county in Gansu province's Linxia Hui autonomous prefecture. Despite being bordered by three rivers, Dongxiang county is a dry, desolate place, yet out of this desert comes some of China's most beautiful and colorful embroidery. 

In comparison to the great silk embroidery traditions of southern China, Dongxiang embroidery is less delicate, but more bold and brightly colored. "We cannot be the generation responsible for the disappearance of the Dongxiang people's embroidery traditions," said Ma Xiaoxiao who found the skills a good way to help her fellow local women gain financial independence, and with this a greater sense of self-worth and accomplishment.

She returned home in July 2018 and set up the embroidery factory. In order to better understand the uniqueness of her cultural heritage, Ma Xiaoxiao visited the village's best embroiderer, Tangnu Geiye, now in her 70s.

Tangnu Geiye explained to Ma Xiaoxiao that traditionally, the Dongxiang people embroidered everything from door curtains to cushions, socks, earmuffs, undergarments, shoe insoles and pillow cases.

The old woman showed Ma Xiaoxiao some of the beautiful works that she made in her heyday, including a stunning pillowcase specially prepared for her daughter's wedding. Light purple, loud-speaker-shaped morning glory flowers were intricately stitched using a special 'duo'( cutting)technique. This creates an uneven texture by varying the tension in the thread and is unique to Dongxiang embroidery.

In the old days, Tangnu Geiye joked, a woman who could not sew would not be able to find a husband, but nowadays with the advent of less labor-intensive machine embroidery, the women only make items for important occasions, such as weddings and funerals. 

Many of these works become family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. Ma Xiaoxiao's own family possesses a beautiful pillowcase intricately decorated with the motif of a climbing melon that is over 100 years old. 

During a visit to the Linxia Museum, Ma Xiaoxiao saw an exquisite gown around 150 years old that was embroidered with beautiful flowers. It made her realize that these traditions were not just a form of handicraft, but were actually works of art. However, these skills were dying out and largely remained hidden from view, often used to decorate and strengthen the insoles of shoes. 

Ma Xiaoxiao decided to take these hidden patterns and put them on everyday objects such as lanterns, handkerchiefs, pictures and tea coasters. She was determined to make Dongxiang embroidery known as one of the great embroidery traditions of China and at the same time to boost the prospects of her fellow villagers by providing much needed employment to the women in the community. 

However, her ambitions were not easily realized. With an initial investment of around USD15,000, after just three months she was overdrawn on three credit cards and for the first time in her life was experiencing the pinch of a shortage of cash. 

She struggled to find skilled embroiderers. Ma Xiaoxiao's call that the women leave home to work in her factory and earn a small income was met with deep suspicion. In order to enlist workers, she had to trek through the snow to visit each household bearing gifts to explain her project. Slowly, despite the freezing December temperatures, one by one the women came until there were over 10 embroiderers, some just 20 years old, some over 60.

They huddled together on the heated, raised kang bed, chatting and laughing, trying out different designs and techniques, and comparing their skills with one another. For simple yet quality products, Ma Xiaoxiao paid around USD3 each. By the end of the month, most of the ladies earned over USD30. It was a tremendous amount for them, and for many, it was the first money of their own that they had ever earned. Seeing their expression on receiving their first salary made all of the hard work worthwhile for Ma Xiaoxiao.

The opportunity to earn a steady income transformed the lives of many of these women. For the first time, they were able to buy their own clothes and make-up, and no longer had to turn to the men in their family for money. It not only gave them financial independence, it gave them confidence and hope. Slowly the word spread and more and more women came to join her team. 

Ma Axiye was one such woman. She struggled to raise five children on her own after her husband was crippled in an accident. The opportunity to work at Ma Xiaoxiao's factory gave her much needed stability and the hope that she could one day save enough money to buy her youngest son a computer.

The return to the countryside by such entrepreneurs as Ma Xiaoxiao is transforming China's villages. By providing tax incentives, improved credit availability, business training and technical support such as e-commerce website development, the government is encouraging the growth of small businesses in these neglected rural areas in order to boost economic vitality.

Thanks to other entrepreneurs who share Ma Xiaoxiao's vision and determination, such projects are reviving the local economy in remote areas of China. By preserving and promoting traditional skills, they have become a source of great hope for numerous poor villagers and their families.

Editor: Xia Ruirui, Chen Juan 

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Keywords: On The Way Home