Miao embroidery brings money and camaraderie to elderly villagers

The Miao work embroidery in Chongqing. Photo: CGV

The Miao work embroidery in Chongqing.  Photos: VCG

The Miao work embroidery in Chongqing. Photo: CGV

A group of grandmothers sit in front of a traditional-style dwelling in southwest China, skillfully sewing colored thread into a piece of blue cloth and occasionally bursting into laughter.

This is the scene in Hejiayan Village, Youyang Tujia and Miao Autonomous County, Chongqing Municipality, where elderly people of the Miao ethnic group carry on their centuries-old cultural tradition of embroidery.

These women learned the craft as children, but they never expected it would bring them together in old age, injecting fun into their twilight years – let alone an additional stream of income.

This local craft resurgence began in 2013 when 48-year-old Chen Guotao opened his first Miao embroidery shop in Youyang. Growing up in a rural area, Chen wanted to help fuel China’s rural revitalization, and in 2016 she set up the first of several embroidery workshops.

They offered employment opportunities to unemployed village women who had stayed behind to care for the family while the parents sought higher wages elsewhere.

Chen now has four Miao embroidery workshops, three in the villages and one in the county seat, with more than 1,000 local employees.

But workshops are more than just workplaces. They are also social clubs for local seniors, most of whom would otherwise lead rather dull lives, sitting at home with little social interaction.

Ran Guoxian, 76, lives halfway up the hill. Using a stick, she climbs the mountain every day to the workshop in Hejiayan Village. She is allowed to do her embroidery at home, but she prefers to leave the house.

“The workshop fills my life with happiness. I finally have something to do and someone to talk to,” Ran said.

Previously, she spent her days at home, killing time, often just sitting in the yard and gazing up at the sky.

The Hejiayan workshop alone has more than 100 workers, about 80% of whom are seniors. Basking in the warm sun and enjoying the tranquility of their embroidery, these elderly people have become an integral part of the village scene.

Chen is happy to see their positive change in attitude towards life. It still leaves the lighter jobs to older workers, but it pays a relatively high price for their labor. She also provides a medical kit for the elderly, in case they feel uncomfortable during their work.

It’s not just older women who benefit from these special embroidery workshops. There are also quite a few middle-aged women among them.

Hu Lan, 55, works at the Miao Embroidery Workshop in Hejiayan Village and has become her family’s main breadwinner. Previously, she stayed at home, taking care of her sick husband, without any paid work.

“When I had no income, I worried a lot and felt like a burden on my children. But since I started making money from embroidery, I feel more comfortable,” Hu said.

She says she can earn around 1,500 yuan ($223) a month, which helps ease the financial burden on the family.

“It’s more than just a business. I myself was born in a village and I know too well the difficulties they face, so I would like to make a difference for them,” Chen said.

Thanks to Chen’s efforts, the county’s ethnic embroidery craft has gained popularity both at home and abroad under the brand name “Youzhou Miao Embroidery”. It has been recognized at the municipal level as a form of intangible cultural heritage and has become the preferred gift given to foreign visitors by the Chongqing Foreign Affairs Bureau.

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