China’s embroidery prodigy weaves ethnic color into global vogue

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DM Monitoring

CHENGDU: Since her 50s, Yang Huazhen has stitched traditional colors of China’s Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups into embroidery crafts, becoming a muse for many global fashion brands.
Yang, 63 now, forged her distinctive embroidery style — Tibetan and Qiang Embroidery — over a decade ago. It is a blend of Tibetan weaving, cross-stitch techniques and Qiang embroidery.
She feeds a wide range of themes into her work, including the natural scenery and production, as well as spectacles of Tibetan and Qiang life. Her handicrafts and designs have inspired Shu Uemura, Starbucks and many other international brands to introduce products bearing elements of her ethnic fashion.
Born in Tsenlha County of Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, Yang inherited this embroidery craft from her family.
As the only daughter of the eight children in her family, she learned techniques of weaving and stitching since seven.
While she was still very young, Yang became well-known in her village. Many brides-to-be would approach Yang, requesting her to design their wedding dresses.
However, until 51, Yang had always regarded embroidery as a hobby and never thought of making a career in it. She used to be a teacher and also ran her photo studios in Tsenlha and the city of Barkam after learning photography by herself. In 1994, she became a photojournalist for a local newspaper Aba Daily.
In 2008, the magnitude-8 earthquake struck Wenchuan in Sichuan and Yang’s life took a different turn since then. On May 12, when the disaster befell, Yang was on her way from Barkam to the provincial capital Chengdu on a reporting assignment.
The bus on which she was traveling halted in Yingxiu County of Wenchuan, the epicenter. Yang survived and bore witness to all that transpired — misfortunes of the victims, people’s humanitarian efforts in saving lives and the power of nationwide solidarity for Sichuan.
“I thought, what could I do for my hometown,” Yang said. In order to rebuild the devastated region and help the earthquake victims, one needs to start some projects that could help them financially, she reckoned. That’s when the idea of embroidery struck Yang’s mind.
FROM PHOTOJOURNALIST TO ENTREPRENEUR
Three months after the disaster, Yang left her job at the newspaper to start an embroidery business. She, along with 18 other elderly women aged over 60, began the project in Chengdu from scratch. The older women were half Tibetans and half Qiang people and many of them walked out of the mountain to the city for the first time.
It was not easy for them to start a business. A few months later, they almost ran out of the initial fund worth 30,000 yuan (about 4,300 U.S. dollars), generating a meager business.
As Yang was preparing to give up, she was invited to join a local cultural and tourism project. It not only offered 170 square meters of free decoration for the shop, but the rent for the first year was also waived.
Yang’s venture featuring strong ethnic elements soon rose to fame. Many enterprises offered to donate since they came from the disaster-hit area; however, Yang insisted on giving their commodities in return for the donation, hoping more people can notice their works.