Culture is treasures in the eyes of the Lisu minority

By Chen Ziqi China Plus Published: 2018-02-02 18:03:53
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Completion of a new highway linking a remote area in Yunnan to the rest of the province has transformed the lives of villagers in Binchuan county. The tourist industry has taken off, thanks to a new, convenient transport link which means people can access remote regions without hassle. Many international and domestic travellers are making use of the new infrastructure, to reach places that were once considered rural.

Luo Fuhua has turned her home to a homestay accommodation to welcome tourists visiting a Buddhism resort in the region. {Photo: from China Plus}

Luo Fuhua has turned her home to a homestay accommodation to welcome tourists visiting a Buddhist resort in the region. [Photo: from China Plus]

Realizing the impact the new road could have on their lives, local villagers have begun to open homestay services for tourists who crave nature and countryside. But their drive to take advantage of the new access didn't end at opening family inns. Luo Fuhua was the first in the county to open her doors, and that led to a lot more.

Living in this small village in Binchuan county, Luo Fuhua began taking advantage of the new road by operating homestay services to provide accommodation for tourists. It didn't stop there because as she interacted with her guests, she realised there was a ready market for handmade ethnic Lisu minority costumes. Women from more than 100 local families followed her lead and now earn additional incomes using their needles and thread to create garments sewn in the local ethnic tradition. It has been such a life-changing venture that Luo becomes quite emotional when she explains what motivated her to set foot on this unfamiliar path.

"I was the first one in my village to run a homestay business. It has completely changed my life. My previous income was from growing crops, like corn and tobacco, but it wasn't enough to cover my children's tuition fees and living costs. I had to find a way."

Because of the geographical disadvantages of the area, which means it's always been very difficult to build a transport network and other infrastructure in the region; standards of living were always lower than the average in China as a whole.

Buddhist resort-Jizu Mountain in Dali in Yunnan Province. [Photo: from VCG]

Buddhist resort--Jizu Mountain in Dali in Yunnan Province. [Photo: from VCG]

Then in 2011, change was enabled thanks to the completion of the highway – when the region was at last connected to the rest of the country. The new road and a nearby Buddhist resort are two reasons why the tourist industry began to take off. Seizing the opportunity, Luo Fuhua opened the first homestay accommodation in the region. Tourists to the area now stay at Luo's place, or just have meals there. And when they saw what a success she was making of her hospitality venture, other villagers began to imitate her business model.

Growing up in a small village, people tend to all know one another. At first, Luo found it hard to get used to seeing so many strangers in her community, so she was a bit nervous and shy when she served her customers. As time went by, she became more outgoing and able to interact naturally with them, eventually getting feedback from them about her hospitality.

In her off-peak hours, Luo Fuhua wanted to keep herself occupied, so she put a loom by the front door and began to weave traditional fabrics. Modern tourists hardly ever get the chance to witness this old-fashioned chore first hand, so it wasn't long before she would find many of them surrounding her and watching her painstakingly carrying out what the locals see as ordinary work. How could Luo have known that the fabrics she was so used to making out of fireweed, a common herb found in southwest China, would be so exotic to people from other regions? To her, it was just ordinary fabric.

Yet tourists began snapping it up as a souvenir. Luo couldn't believe that tourists actually found her weaving amazing and quite unique.

"I didn't know so many people would like my fabrics. At the beginning, I just wanted to have something to do when I didn't have customers to serve,” Luo said, “Later, I realized my fabrics could actually be sold as a commodity."

Fabrics made by fireweed.[Photo: from VCG]

Fabrics made by fireweed.[Photo: from VCG]

The Lisu minority in Binchuan county weave fireweed string to make traditional costumes, and this craftsmanship has been passed down through generations. Women make fireweed string by combing regular twine with yarn taken out of the plant fireweed. They then use this special-made string to weave fabrics for ethnic costumes. Because it's such a complicated procedure, it usually takes several months to make one costume, which means these hand-made costumes are not cheap, though the material is durable and also has a medical function.

After attending a promotional conference organized by the local government, where Luo's costumes were on show, the amount of attention they attracted made Luo Fuhua realize there was a huge market for ethnic clothes. Later, Luo was informed that one client had ordered 20 costumes, but needed them in less than a month. Sadly Luo had no choice but to turn down the offer as there was no way she could have produced them in such a short time.

The experience inspired Luo Fuhua to set up a company that would be able to deal with big orders. She encouraged all the women who could do fireweed weaving to join her, and many of them jumped at the chance.

Lisu ethnic minority. Most of them live in concentrated communities in the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in northwestern Yunnan Province. The Lisu language belongs to the Chinese-Tibetan language family.[Photo: from VCG]

Lisu ethnic minority. Most of them live in concentrated communities in the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in northwestern Yunnan Province. The Lisu language belongs to the Chinese-Tibetan language family.[Photo: from VCG]

In 2017, Luo set up a company and hired women from about 100 families from four neighbouring villages. It meant that each family saw their income grow by more than 15,000 yuan a year.

Luo is always having new ideas. She's realized that although ethnic clothes are appealing to some people, they're not very fashionable when seen alongside the more modern clothes in the shops today. So she asked her daughter, Hai Huizhen, who was working in a big city, to be her fashion consultant. Hai downed her city tools and headed for home. She'd been struggling before she made the decision.

"The younger generation nowadays often works away from their hometown, and we normally pay attention to trendy things, instead of our traditional culture. I was like that until my mum told me I should learn fireweed weaving, because this is who we are."

Lisu ethnic costumes.[photo: from]

Lisu ethnic costumes.[photo: from]

Nowadays, Luo Fuhua and her daughter work together on designing the costumes. After analyzing the target customer's tastes, they add fashionable elements to their products. At the moment, fireweed cheongsam and evening dress are available, popular with customers who like distinctive dresses. And with her younger perspective, Hai Huizhen has realised she must expand the distribution channel, so that one day customers will be able to buy their products on e-commerce platforms.

"I hope my mum and I made the right decision. Our motivation is to improve the economic development in Binchuan county. Although we are from a mountainous area and may not receive a high education, we know what our advantages are and will eventually be able to transcend from a life of poverty," said Hai Huizhen. 

The red color of fireweed fabrics symbolizes luck and prosperity. Luo Fuhua and her daughter believe they have a promising future, and they have confidence that the entire Lisu minority will benefit from the new emerging tourist industry and the ethnic costume business, as long as they just keep doing what they are doing.

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