Crafting a career and boosting her village

Embroidery specialist combines passion and skill to stitch together a prosperous future, Wang Ru and Li Yingqing report.

For Jin Ruirui, a craftswoman engaged with making Yi embroidery, a traditional craft of the Yi ethnic group, this old handicraft still has a big role to play in modern times. She was also a deputy to the second session of the 14th National People's Congress held in Beijing earlier this month.

Jin was one of the first university students from her hometown in A'nali village, Chuxiong Yi autonomous prefecture, Yunnan province. After working in Qujing in Yunnan for several years, she returned to Mouding county in 2014 and established a Yi embroidery company.

Over the years, her company has developed rapidly, reaching an output value of 32 million yuan ($4.43 million) last year and contributes to rural vitalization as it provides income for more than 1,000 people, each earning 20,000 to 40,000 yuan a year.

She has also promoted the craft abroad, attending Milan Fashion Week last year to show costumes with Yi embroidery elements.

"For me, Yi embroidery was the beautiful flowers my mother stitched on our clothes in childhood, and when I grew up, it became the craft that my family lives on," says Jin.

Jin was born in the mountainous A'nali village in 1989, and Yi embroidery has been part of her life since childhood. "I grew up in an environment full of Yi embroidery. Every item of clothing we wore used it, and you can show anything you want on clothes through the stitches," says Jin.

She explains that the craft is more than 1,700 years old and is known for its exquisite colorful patterns, the result of intricate stitches. The craft has been passed down through generations of Yi women. Jin is the eighth generation of her family to be engaged in the craft.

About two decades ago, the local government noticed her mother's proficiency in making Yi embroidery, and helped her to start a workshop. It was a success, and she received a large number of orders for embroidered clothes. Jin says that consequently, people realized that being skilled in the traditional craft could be a money earner.

It was also through her mother's embroidery skills that Jin and her elder sister were able to continue to receive an education, and they became the village's first university students.

"If my mother had not mastered the handicraft, we sisters would have lived a very different life, similar to many other Yi girls living in the mountains at that time, getting married early and working as farmers. But my mother's embroidery skills enabled us to receive a better education," says Jin.

When she graduated from Qujing Normal University as a music major in 2012, she was recruited by a local chain restaurant serving Yunnan cuisine in Qujing, and was responsible for teaching the staff traditional songs and dance.

"The restaurant features cultural activities. Since Yunnan has many ethnic groups, it showcases their culture through performances and has become one of the leading Yunnan cuisine restaurant brands in the province. That was the time when I realized that the culture of ethnic groups can enrich a business," says Jin.

Given her attachment to Yi embroidery and confidence in ethnic culture, when her mother suggested she return home to inherit the craft, she decided to do just that in 2014.

"Maybe through my own efforts, we can discover more value in the craft," she says.

After she returned home, Jin began making innovations and developed creative cultural products with Yi embroidery elements, in addition to making traditional clothing.

Her company has developed three main series of creative cultural products. The first is traditional Yi embroidery patterns; the second uses local green peafowl culture in its designs, and the third combines elements of the culture of Mazu, a sea goddess worshipped in China's coastal areas. The products include souvenirs and articles for daily use, like bags, suitcases and teapots.

According to Wang Yubo, governor of Yunnan province, who spoke at an open panel discussion during this year's two sessions, there is a Yi embroidery boom in Chuxiong, with the number of female embroiderers reaching more than 57,000. Last year, the output value of this business in Chuxiong reached 1 billion yuan.

Jin says there are 583 Yi embroidery enterprises or shops in Chuxiong, and the business has encouraged more young people to return home from cities to be involved in it. Only last year, more than 20 young people came back.

The government has issued a number of policies to support the business. For example, technical standards for the handicraft have been issued. People who open Yi embroidery companies can enjoy a loan with very low interest. Jin says the craft has been combined with tourism so that travelers can feel its charm in an immersive way.

Last year, she got the chance to promote the Yi cultural heritage on a global stage, as she was invited to attend Milan Fashion Week to show clothes decorated with Yi embroidery elements.

"People abroad seemed to like and even respect old embroidery," says Jin, adding that they have signed an order with a British brand to add Yi embroidery elements to their clothes, and many other foreign companies have shown interest in future cooperation.

"The experience also expanded my vision. We want to integrate Western styles into our design and make more new things," says Jin.

As an NPC deputy, she advised further support for the inheritance and development of intangible cultural heritage at this year's two sessions. She also hopes to provide more psychological help for left-behind children whose parents have migrated to cities to work, leaving them in villages with their grandparents.

"I have noticed that some young people in my hometown, without the oversight of parents, may get into trouble. As a result, I hope more attention will be provided for their psychological welfare," says Jin.