Yi ethnic group invigorates traditional embroidery

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Yi ethnic group invigorates traditional embroidery
For more than 1,300 years, Yi people have been passing on their embroidery traditions, a form of intangible cultural heritage. [Photo/VCG]

Li Ruxiu, 60, walks the runway wearing a cockscomb-shaped hat and black, red, yellow and green clothing, displaying traditional Yi ethnic costumes to tourists.

The woman is from the Yi ethnic group and has been showcasing traditional Yi costumes featuring handmade embroidery for more than half a century in Yongren County of Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China's Yunnan Province.

"I have been obsessed with embroidery since I was a little girl," Li said. She learned to do embroidery work at the age of eight and could make her own costumes at 12.

"Yi girls here who can hold a needle can embroider. Embroidery is a skill in our genes," she said.

Yunnan is home to about 5 million Yi people. With ancestral embroidery skills, Yi people needle nature designs onto their costumes, such as flowers, butterflies, birds, tigers and cats, as well as the sun, moon and stars.

For more than 1,300 years, Yi people have been passing on their embroidery traditions, a form of intangible cultural heritage. However, steep mountains used to cut off the unique culture from the outside world. For a long time, the Yi embroidery art remained a mystery.

Local authorities have thus taken a series of measures, including training embroiderers, holding fashion shows, and promoting Yi costumes in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Li's daughter Yu Kunyao opened a Yi embroidery studio in the county after her graduation from college, incorporating new fashion elements and winning the hearts of young consumers.

"Life is like embroidery. It is in need of patience and dexterity," Li said.

"Yi embroidery is amazing. People like it but have no idea how to apply it to modern life," said Fan Zhiyong, vice president of the Yi embroidery association of the Chuxiong prefecture. She has devoted herself to returning Yi embroidery to something more than just art hanging in a museum.

After graduating in 2007, Fan returned to her hometown to establish the Yunnan Naxi Cultural Creative Development Co., Ltd. and registered the brand "Nasu," leading more than 300 embroiderers to participate in Yi embroidery.

Concerted efforts have yielded promising results. There are now 56 Yi embroidery associations and cooperatives as well as 538 embroidery workshops in the prefecture, including 12 enterprises each with an annual output value of more than 5 million yuan (about 703,300 U.S. dollars).

Yunnan has invested more than 30 million yuan to promote the Yi cultural industry, whose output value increased from 20 million yuan in 2012 to 200 million yuan in 2021.

Among the 57,000 female embroiderers in Chuxiong prefecture, Li Guoxiu earns more than 6,000 yuan monthly from working at the Colorful Yi Embroidery Culture Co., Ltd. in Nanhua County.

Ding Lanying, head of the company and mother to two daughters, has been dedicated to helping rural mothers work near home, enabling them to take care of their children.

As a provincial inheritor of intangible cultural heritage in Yunnan, Ding has mastered over 70 Yi embroidery techniques. Last year, her company developed more than 1,000 products across over 300 categories, such as handbags and shawls, with an annual income of 15 million yuan.

Now, her elder daughter has also become a county-level inheritor of Yi embroidery.

"Yi embroidery is our life, and we have worked hard to make the old art brand-new," Ding said.

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