By Huang Xian, Su Bin, Guizhou province in southwest China, home to a number of ethnic groups, is known for its rich and diverse ethnic cultures. It is also a significant source of labor export. Approximately 9 million individuals, including a significant number of women, seek employment opportunities outside of Guizhou annually.
In order to help more women find employment and entrepreneurship opportunities nearby and increase their income, Guizhou province implemented a “Jinxiu” program, which means beautiful brocade, for local women in July 2013, to promote synchronous development of traditional ethnic handicraft industries and women’s cause, with embroidery, batik, and ethnic costumes and clothing as the focus.
Over the following 10 years, the program has successfully supported and developed more than 1,300 women’s handicraft enterprises and cooperatives, enabling nearly 500,000 women to start businesses and be employed, and generating an impressive output value of over 6 billion yuan ($823.55 million).
In a well-known local Miao embroidery workshop in Shibing county, Qiandongnan Miao and Dong autonomous prefecture, groups of embroiderers were sitting in circles, humming folk songs, and stitching swiftly.
“I just finished negotiating an order with a customer. I’m just busy,” said Long Luying, who runs the workshop, wearing a flower in her hair, dressed in embroidered clothes and silver ornaments.
She told People’s Daily that the support she received from all relevant parties was crucial to this workshop, which has turned from a shop of embroidered fabrics to a workshop of intangible cultural heritage that integrates R&D, production, sales and training.
In 2000, Long made the decision to return to her hometown after spending 15 years working in various cities, where she witnessed the rapid development and progress of big cities. However, upon her return, she was disheartened to find that her village remained underdeveloped, and her fellow female villagers, despite possessing exceptional embroidery skills, were struggling to generate a stable income from their craft. Therefore, she decided to start a business at home.
In Shibing county, embroidered fabrics were very popular with tourists, which Long saw as a business opportunity. In 2006, after recruiting eight embroiderers, Long’s Miao embroidery shop officially opened. She single-handedly managed the daily operations of the workshop, from finding customers and orders to purchasing materials, and to producing embroidered fabrics.
Just as the shop’s business started to thrive, Long faced challenges when attempting to expand production. Due to the varying techniques and skill levels among the embroiderers, achieving standardized production was quite difficult without proper systematic training.
The implementation of the Jinxiu program changed this situation. An important task of the program was to carry out large-scale training, to improve embroiderers’ cultural literacy and modern designing capability in aspects like techniques, practical operation, marketing, and design.
At the same time, the program offered financial subsidies and project support for outstanding workshops, cooperatives or enterprises across the province to cultivate female inheritors of traditional handicraft.
Since 2013, with support from relevant departments, Long has been able to carry out training in surrounding Miao villages. The training has now covered eight villages in three townships, joined by a total of over 2,660 people.
To further expand the market, Long and other inheritors of intangible cultural heritage and workshop owners often participate in exhibitions held both at home and abroad under the organization and arrangement of the Guizhou Department of Commerce. With exquisite workmanship and unique designs, their sales channels have been increasingly widened.
Long said that in the past, she had to search for buyers of embroidered fabrics, but now buyers come to her. “This is because the embroiderers’ techniques have become more standardized, resulting in high-quality products that are in demand,” she explained.
Tai Banhai is a embroiderer who works at Long’s workshop. In the past, she and her husband had to work in Guangdong province in order to earn a living, which unfortunately meant being separated from their daughter for extended periods of time.
Long’s workshop has provided Tai with the opportunity to achieve a better work-life balance. She is now able to take her daughter to school every day, and cook meals for her family at home. In her spare time, she visits the workshop to either work on embroidery projects or collect materials for processing. With the piecework standards in place, Tai can earn a monthly income of 3,000 yuan, which is more than enough to cover the household expenses.
“Thanks to the Miao embroidery workshop, I have the opportunity to work close to my home. Now many female friends of mine have gradually returned home, and there are fewer left-behind children,” said Tai.
In addition to creating employment opportunities, Long’s Miao embroidery workshop has also played a crucial role in preserving and passing down the art of embroidery.
Over the years, the workshop has successfully trained and nurtured more than 100 apprentices, many of whom have gone on to establish their own embroidery workshops.
To enhance the workshop’s resilience, Long has been actively promoting transformation and upgrading. One such initiative is the exploration of smart Miao embroidery, achieved through collaborations with universities. This digital transformation has enabled the traditional handicraft to evolve into industrial embroidery, significantly increasing production efficiency by 50 times while reducing costs to just 10 percent of hand embroidery.
As a result, the workshop now primarily relies on machine embroidery for indoor decoration products, while fashion design works remain purely handmade. This combination, coupled with online and offline sales strategies, has made the workshop more resilient. Orders for both machine and hand embroidery are now scheduled months in advance.
So far, Long has created jobs for 1,297 embroiderers. Starting from a modest figure, the workshop’s annual output value has now surpassed 26 million yuan, making the workshop the leading player in traditional ethnic handicrafts within Guizhou province.