Weaving Tradition and Innovation into Poverty Reduction


The management staff at the Huayao Dai Embroidery Association in Ping Zhai Village, Yunnan Province. Energetic and young, they hope to carry their ethnic culture forward through traditional handicrafts in the age of globalisation. Photo © Yan Lu

Eighty year old Dao Yuanxian learned to embroider when she was just seven years old. She has practised this art throughout her life and recalls that her wedding dress was her finest work. Yet, in Dao's village of Ping Zhai, a Huayao Dai minority community in China's southwest Yunnan Province, her traditional skills are at risk of being lost.

With the pressure of having to contribute to household incomes, men and young people from her village are moving to where the employment opportunities with higher pay lie – cities. Those that remain in the village still value the art of embroidery for its beauty and cultural importance. However, as time passes, fewer and fewer women have time to nurture these skills and are instead preoccupied with farming and household duties.

Highlight

  • Combining traditional and innovative practices to create new employment opportunities and alleviate poverty in 27 minority areas in Yunnan, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, this project has helped to demonstrate that preserving minority cultures and promoting income-generating work can be mutually reinforcing objectives.

This is the story of many of the 114 million people that comprise China's 55 ethnic minority groups – the world's largest ethnic minority population. Though they make up only 8.4% of China's population, these ethnic minorities represent half of the country's poor communities. These groups possess rich and distinctive ways of life, which, if properly preserved and adapted, can be a strong driving force for development. Too often, though, this has not happened and age-old cultural heritages have disappeared in the rush to modernise.

In an effort to build ethnic communities' confidence and capacities to maintain their traditions, UNDP has been working with the Chinese Government under a six-year, US$7 million project entitled "Poverty Reduction for Ethnic Minorities in China". Combining traditional and innovative practices to create new employment opportunities and alleviate poverty in 27 minority areas in Yunnan, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, this project has helped to demonstrate that preserving minority cultures and promoting income-generating work can be mutually reinforcing objectives.

In Ping Zhai, local women have been assisted in establishing and managing their own embroidery association, having been provided with workshops and machinery, as well training in accounting, personnel management, design and quality upgrading and marketing. In other areas, where the need to engage in farming practices cannot be easily overcome, associations have also been created to help cow breeding and vegetable growing communities, among others, to increase their income and compete with mass markets, by organising themselves and working together.

By enhancing the capacities of these communities to organise and manage their own workforces and produce and sell their products, associations have helped to generated income for entire communities. In Ping Zhai, for example, women in the village have been able to increase their income through embroidery, giving them hope, pride and showing them that their age-old craft can be a viable alternative to farming. Their increased status in society has also given them the skills and confidence to participate in the management of village affairs, and their pride and motivation to continue producing their handicrafts and clothing has been boosted by being selected for a global exhibition at the 2010 Shanghai World EXPO.

UNDP has continued to work with these associations to address challenges typical of remote and underdeveloped markets, including how to overcome issues of cost, competitiveness and meeting consumer demands for innovative commodities, while also producing on a commercially viable scale, identifying sustainable markets and developing marketing techniques. In the case of traditional ethnic handicrafts, such as embroidery and weaving, the issue of adapting traditional designs to modern tastes without losing cultural specificity has also been addressed.

One way UNDP has been helping to address these challenges is by facilitating broad partnerships with all sectors of society, including the business community. In 2011, UNDP announced a four-year partnership with leading Chinese cosmetic firm Jala Group, to promote synergies between the traditional cultural production of ethnic minorities and modern market trends. Drawing on Jala Group's business expertise and acumen, as well as their connections with the fashion industry, work has already begun on improving brand recognition and establishing a clear distinction between the competitive advantage and authenticity of ethnic minority products over cheaper mass produced items. This is crucial for broadening production and marketing channels for community-based tourism, handicraft and cultural resource preservation, and will bring communities like Ping Zhai unprecedented opportunities to connect with China's dynamic private sector.

Beyond improving immediate livelihood opportunities, UNDP has been working to ensure the long term sustainability of these initiatives. These efforts have centred on changing attitudes from a willingness to follow, to a desire to lead by providing local communities with the technical skills and abilities to continue generating income and learning from their experiences long after the project is completed. In addition, UNDP has ensured that the challenges faced by remote ethnic communities are raised at the national level. Recommendations have been formulated and discussed at provincial and national workshops under this project, as the Chinese Government drafted its 12th Five Year Development Plan.

Thanks to this project, Dao is now able to pass on her skills to future generations with pride, safe in the knowledge that the women in her community can continue to practice the ancient art of embroidery that has existed in their village for centuries, and that their talents have once again been recognised as an important resource for development.

Weaving out of Poverty