Stitching Together New Lives with Ancient Yi Embroidery

2024-03-04 10:41:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter MENG JIAXIN
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1,000-year-old Yi embroidery is taking a new lease of life in the modern era.

During my childhood, Yi embroidery was the bright detailed rhododendron delavayi flowers which my mom sewed on clothes; later after I grew up, it has also become the means I use to provide a living for my family,” said Jin Ruirui, a Yi embroidery inheritor. Jin was born in 1989 in Anali Village, Mouding County, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China’s Yunnan Province. She is a deputy to the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) and the president of the Yi Embroidery Innovation Association for the young people in Mouding County. She is also the eighth generation inheritor of Yi embroidery in her family.

Jin Ruirui is presenting her fashion design alongside a model on the runway during the Milan Fashion Week on September 23, 2023. 

Passed Down in the Family 

When she was a child, Jin usually helped her mother embroider patterns and make clothes after school. For her, along with all Yi women, making Yi embroidery was part of their daily life. “My mother learned how to do Yi embroidery and make Yi clothes from her mother,” Jin told China Today. Being a skilled embroiderer, Jin’s grandmother taught Jin and her mother Yi embroidery since they were young, helping them inherit the traditional Yi embroidery skills that had been passed down in the family for generations. Every Yi woman in their village learns the craft and use it to make a living.

The village she grew up in was located deep in the mountains, making life during her growing-up years not very easy. To reach the nearest bus stop, she had to walk several miles. To help give her two daughters a better education, Jin’s mother Lu Xiuqin supplemented their household income by taking many orders for embroidery and handmade clothes from people living in the center of the county. Jin and her elder sister did not disappoint their mother’s efforts and become the first two people from their village to attend university.

In June 2012, Jin Ruirui graduated from the Music and Dancing Department of Qujing Normal College and became a singing and dancing coach. Then in 2014, Jin's mother set up a Yi embroidery company with the hope that Jin would come back to build up the Yi embroidery brand together with her. "The policy and market environment at that time were very favorable to the development of traditional culture, and I also wanted to do my part to help pass on our family's Yi embroidery skills," Jin said. After consideration, she decided to return to her hometown to focus on expanding the local Yi embroidery industry.

In order to further improve her Yi embroidery skills and better acquaint herself with the industry, Jin worked hard and participated in a series of Yi embroidery training courses and forums after she returned to Mouding County. In the first couple of years after being involved in managing the company, she participated in more than 20 ethnic cultural industry fairs around the country as a representative of Mouding Yi embroidery enterprises, to promote Yi embroidery culture. She also took part in many Yi embroidery competitions to learn from other embroiderers. Later, after accumulating experience in running a business, she took on full responsibilities of running her mother's company by herself.

She attempted new designs of Yi embroidery and incorporated many modern elements into her embroidery products. Jin described her operation philosophy as two faceted, “One is to preserve the traditional cultural roots and continue making traditional ethnic clothing; the other is to combine fashion elements and apply ancient skills to the design and development of creative cultural products that are accepted by the market." With these efforts, she won awards for youth innovation and entrepreneurship at both provincial and state levels.

Jin Ruirui (wearing a blue blouse in the center) is doing embroidery with her fellow embroiders. 

Creating Happiness for Others 

As a result of its exquisite handmade products, good reputation, and efficient management, Jin’s company has grown quickly. In recent years, the increase of public attention toward traditional culture and the government’s supporting policies also provided a good environment for the development of Yi embroidery industry. In 2018, the annual output value of her company exceeded RMB 5 million.

As her company continued to develop, Jin, having been born and raised in Mouding, hoped to play a part in helping increase the income of other local embroiderers, so that more people can also lead a better life. To this end, Jin has cooperated with the local government in offering free Yi embroidery training courses. Many of Jin’s present employees were trainees in those courses.

“As the company expanded between 2013 and 2023, the per capita monthly income of embroiderers increased from RMB 563 to RMB 3,181, and the per capita annual income of full-time embroiderers increased from RMB 20,000 to RMB 40,000. We have also helped more than 1,200 women start their own business or find employment,” Jin said.

As a result of her empowering employees to realize their potential, 32 of her former employees are currently running their own stores or managing their own firms. This brings her great happiness.

“I’m also planning to start a traditional Chinese knot button training course. Since the techniques required in making traditional knot buttons are simple and the demand for this kind of knot is huge, the training will enable more people to get jobs,” she said.

For now, Mouding County has built two blocks of buildings dedicated to Yi embroidery businesses, housing over 100 Yi embroidery enterprises and stores and more than 8,700 folk artists. The Yi embroidery industry has developed more than 100 categories of products, generating over RMB 40 million in output value. Chuxiong is now home to around 57,000 embroiderers, and Yi embroidery has become a highlight that attracts tourists and boosts the local economy.

Enabling the Disabled 

Since 2021, Jin has been working with the Disabled Persons’ Federation in Mouding County to create jobs for local embroiderers with disabilities. “The Disabled Persons' Federation gave us a list of disabled persons who wanted to learn this skill and we have provided Yi embroidery training for nearly 100 of them already.”

“Our company now employs seven embroiderers with disabilities. It is not many, but we are planning to engage more disabled embroiderers in the industry.” After training, some of them can take orders directly from customers. For those who have no prior exposure to embroidery, Jin sends full-time employees to their homes to provide them with one-on-one training. “By learning Yi embroidery, these embroiderers with disabilities ranging between the ages of 20 and 60 are able to increase their income as well as their self-confidence.”

As a mother of two children herself, Jin understands the need of the employees to take care of their children. “Our company designed an area in our office building for children to play and study. Employees can bring their children to the company, especially during the summer and winter vacations, and these children can have fun and do their homework together. If it is not convenient for some employees to come to the company, they can choose to work from home,” said Jin. Such employee-friendly measures have attracted a lot of young people to join her company.

“An industry and an era need to be led by the younger generation, so I would like to attract more young people to engage in the Yi embroidery industry.” There was a time when only older embroiderers worked in this field and young people went to work in big cities. Now the situation has changed as the traditional cultural market is booming. More and more young people are engaging in Yi embroidery-related work. Reflecting on this change, Jin said, "Our company is now basically composed of young employees, and I am very pleased to see this phenomenon."

Jin Ruirui (first on the left) is attending the first session of the 14th National People's Congress as a deputy in March of 2023. 

Deputy to the National People's Congress 

In 2022, Jin Ruirui was elected as a deputy to the 14th National People's Congress, becoming the first NPC deputy in the history of Mouding County. In March of 2023, she came to Beijing for the first time in this role. About her new identity, Jin said, “I am very honored and excited, and at the same time I feel a sense of responsibility. Being elected to the NPC is a supreme honor, but also a serious mission,”she said. During the first meeting of the 14th National People’s Congress, she proposed policies for strengthening the protection of intangible cultural heritage and scaling up support for Yi embroidery industry development. Donning traditional Yi ethnic costumes throughout the session, Jin attracted the attention of reporters and showed Yi embroidery and clothing to the audience nationwide.

She has been actively promoting the Yi embroidery and its reservation by participating in a series of deputy training programs, inspections, research, and exchanges. In addition, she organized exhibitions centered on Yi costumes, and displayed and sold Yi costumes at Yi Torch Festival and other festivals. She led a group of Yi embroidery enterprises to participate in more than 40 trade events. In order to expand sales channels, Jin attended many forums on Yi embroidery, went to metropolises like Shanghai to promote products, and signed a number of orders and agreements worth millions of US dollars.

In 2023, under the guidance of the People’s Congress of Mouding County, Jin set up a deputy workstation for Yi embroidery inheritors. She said that the objective of the workstation is, on the one hand, to help the people’s congress deputies better fulfill their duties, and on the other hand, to draw public attention to the protection of intangible cultural heritage. “It’s like a big family coming together to discuss ways of preserving and promoting traditional arts. The workstation holds quarterly meetings that are attended by deputies from the village level to the national level, and each of them brings suggestions and concerns which were collected from the public for discussion.” The workstation also organizes social welfare activities, such as bringing ethnic minority clothing and other fine intangible cultural heritage products to poor communities in mountainous areas.

There are many children in Mouding County whose parents work in cities far away from home. “During meetings at the workstation, we learned that there is a higher probability of juvenile delinquency among these ‘left-behind children’ because of various physical and mental health issues they encounter as a result of their parents being absent in their lives. After much deliberation over this issue, we put forward some measures to strengthen the physical and mental health care for ‘left-behind’ minors at the People's Congress meetings that included organizing such care activities as giving books to those children to help them feel that the community cares and loves them."

"Serving as a NPC deputy is a great honor for me, and I will contribute everything within my means to my hometown through my proposals." As the 2024 NPC session is around the corner, Jin Ruirui plans to hand in the following proposals: continue to develop the workstations of cultural inheritors, provide more care services for “left-behind children”, and scale up the preservation and utilization of intangible cultural heritage.

Jin Ruiui (first on the left) takes a group photo with other Yi designers during the Milan Fashion Week on September 23, 2023. 

Going Global 

Yi embroidery represents a variety of stitching skills, exquisite designs, and bright colors. This ancient technique is now drawing attention from other countries as well. “Anything that you see or can imagine can be embroidered with Yi embroidery, and the products made today are pretty as well as durable,” said Jin.

On September 23, 2023, the Chuxiong Yi Embroidery Show debuted at the Milan Fashion Week, with 40 sets of fashion garments embellished with Yi embroidery elements, showing the beauty of the ancient and mysterious Yi embroidery from the East. As one of the producers, Jin Ruirui attended the event.

The major shade used in these 40 sets of women's clothes displayed at the fashion week was black, a color revered by the Yi people. Patterns of clouds, seeds and rhododendron delavayi flowers, silver ornaments and other traditional elements were also displayed on those garments. Designers combined the ancient oriental embroidery techniques with Italian luxury crafted fabrics, and used modern technology such as laser cutting to create clothes with a Yi style and present a series of women's clothing that was elegant and displayed oriental charm.

The fashion week also featured a series of hand-embroidered Yi embroidery bags that were made in collaboration with an Italian brand. These bags used a lot of Yi embroidery pieces made by local embroiderers in Chuxiong. On the sidelines of the cat walk, there was an off-site exhibition which showcased Chuxiong Yi embroidery.

This was the first time Yi embroidery had entered a world-class fashion week. As a result, "A number of foreign clothing brands expressed their interest in Yi embroidery and clothing,” Jin said. “We discussed cooperation opportunities with some of these foreign companies and signed an order with a British clothing brand to use Yi embroidery elements on their clothing."

Jin enjoyed the opportunity provided by such international platforms as the fashion week to display the beauty of the age-old ethnic craft of Yi embroidery as well as tell the story of how the Yi ethnic group was raised out of poverty and today live a happy life.

As an inheritor of Yi embroidery, Jin is very confident with the identity which has also become her mission in life. “I must pass on this skill,” she says, “so that more people can appreciate the beauty of Yi embroidery, while at the same time, help more people enjoy a better quality of life with this craft."

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