Yi ethnic group reinvigorates traditional embroidery

A woman presents embroidery made by the Yi ethnic group in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, June 22, 2022. Photo: IC

Li Ruxiu, 60, parades down the runway wearing a rooster’s comb-shaped hat and black, red, yellow and green clothes, showing tourists traditional clothes of the Yi ethnic group.

The woman is of Yi ethnicity and has been displaying traditional Yi clothing with handmade embroidery for more than half a century in Yongren County, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, South China. western China).

“I’ve been obsessed with embroidery since I was little,” Li said. She learned to do embroidery when she was 8 and was able to make her own clothes when she was 12.

“Here, girls who can hold a needle can embroider. Embroidery is in our genes,” she said.

Yunnan is home to about 5 million Yi people. Using age-old embroidery skills, the Yi sew patterns from nature onto their clothes, such as flowers, butterflies, birds, tigers and cats, as well as the sun, moon and stars.

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

Local authorities have thus taken a series of measures, including the training of embroiderers, the organization of fashion shows and the promotion of Yi clothing in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

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

“Life is like embroidery. It needs patience and dexterity,” Li said.

“Yi embroidery is amazing. People love it but don’t know how to apply it to modern life,” said Fan Zhiyong, vice president of Chuxiong Prefecture’s Yi Embroidery Association. She has dedicated herself to making Yi embroidery something more than just art hanging in a museum.

After graduating in 2007, Fan returned to her hometown to establish Yunnan Naxi Cultural Creative Development Co, Ltd and registered the trademark “Nasu”, bringing over 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 ($703,300).

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

Among Chuxiong Prefecture’s 57,000 female embroiderers, Li Guoxiu earns more than 6,000 yuan a month working at Colorful Yi Embroidery Culture Co, Ltd in Nanhua County.

Ding Lanying, a business leader and mother of two daughters, has dedicated herself to helping rural mothers work close to home, enabling them to take care of their children.

As a provincial heiress of Yunnan’s intangible cultural heritage, Ding has mastered more than 70 Yi embroidery techniques. In 2021, her company has developed more than 1,000 products in more than 300 categories, such as handbags and shawls, with an annual revenue of 15 million yuan.

Now, her eldest daughter has also become a county-level heiress of Yi embroidery.

“Yi embroidery is our life, and we have worked hard to revive this ancient art,” Ding said.