A CPC delegate's commitment to reviving ethnic minority culture

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A CPC delegate's commitment to reviving ethnic minority culture
Chen Yunzhen (center) works with her partners in Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County, Sichuan Province, in July. (COURTESY PHOTO)

With her needle moving almost magically across a piece of fabric, Chen Yunzhen conjures up a range of images using threads of various colors. A dull piece of cloth, with its length totaling two meters, gradually transformed into a pretty one embellished with azalea and pomegranate patterns. Fifty-something Chen, a master of embroidery of the Qiang ethnic minority, has been working on this piece of art over the past months. 

Chen, who joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2000, has been taking the lead in carrying forward the technique, a local intangible cultural heritage. As one of the delegates from Sichuan Province, she showcased the work during the 20th National Congress of the CPC that commenced in Beijing on October 16. "For Chinese people, azaleas and pomegranates are auspicious symbols which respectively suggest prosperity and ethnic fusion," Chen told Beijing Review. 

The embroidery of the Qiang ethnic community boasts a long history, dating back to the Han Dynasty (B.C. 202 -A.D. 220) when it was adopted onto clothing. Qiang embroidery involves a wide range of stitches, including crossed, flat and chain ones. The dense stitches of the embroidery protect the clothes from wearing out. Flowers, grasses, fruits, vegetables, animals and figures are the craft's most common patterns. This type of embroidery features a bold use of brilliant colors. 

Chen is native to Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County, Mianyang in Sichuan Province. An earthquake struck Wenchuan County in Sichuan in 2008, severely damaging the surrounding regions. Many Qiang embroidery facilities were destroyed and some embroidery makers unfortunately lost their lives. To save the endangered technique from disappearing altogether, Chen has been visiting the surrounding regions where the Qiang people gathered following the tragic event. "As a member of the Qiang ethnic group, I feel obligated to carry it forward; otherwise, it will wither away and exist only in our memories," Chen said. 

As the once wounded Wenchuan today has regained its vitality, the technique, too, has been revived. In 2012, Chen was elected as a provincial-level inheritor of Qiang embroidery. She then started promoting the skill among the general public to lend the local community a helping hand. 

She established a Qiang embroidery workshop in 2014, which has provided free training for over 20,000 people since 2015. Over 500 local embroidery makers, including full-timers and part-timers, make a living through the shop, including many who were left disabled following the earthquake. Producing embroidery can earn skillful part-timers up to 20,000 yuan ($2,780) every year.  

To breathe new life into Qiang embroidery in modern times, Chen has continuously kept an open mind, introducing new products like accessories, notebooks and bags beyond the traditional clothes, belts and hats. The works have been sold at offline exhibitions and online stores, and even reached several European countries and the United States. 

Chen's two daughters, too, have joined their mother's efforts. After graduating from university, both young women returned to their hometown and started supporting their mother. With a youthful sense of innovation, the two have combined metal materials and Qiang embroidery, creating earrings, rings and necklaces that are popular among young consumers. They are also considering live-streaming to promote their handmade products.  

For Chen, Qiang embroidery is much more than a piece of art to appreciate. "If you give full play to its real value, it will improve more people's lives and drive rural revitalization," she said. 

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