China: Mosuo women artisans reach world market
Luru-Dashima, a female artisan from the Mosuo community in southwest China, never imagined her painstakingly hand-woven scarves would sit atop shiny shelves in Tangs, an upscale Singaporean department store. But for its latest Christmas sale, Tangs chose products not from Europe’s famous fashion houses but from villagers located in a remote part of Yunnan Province.
The last-remaining matriarchal society in China, the Mosuo are a culturally rich people who live by their own social institutions and unconventional gender roles. The Mosuo community upholds unique traditions, among them weaving, an important cultural skill symbolizing the ability to provide for the family. Luru-Dashima and many others in her community spend most of their waking hours weaving, their hard work and dedication crystallized in every thread of their craft.
The Mosuo are a small group – around 53,000 people in a country of 1.3 billion, or 0.04 percent of the population. Their geographic isolation acts as a major hurdle to development and younger generations see no economic benefits or employment opportunities in preserving their cultural inheritance, often leaving for bigger cities.
- 40 million ethnic minority individuals are still living in extreme poverty in China, constituting 32% of the country’s poor.
- The programme targets small ethnic communities particularly vulnerable to the loss of cultural and natural resources, with a special focus on women.
- A UNDP/private sector partnership focuses on improving market access and recognition for traditional ethnic minority handicrafts, benefitting over 2,500 people.
Industrial mass production also had a profoundly detrimental effect on the community’s way of life as local shop owners in the nearby tourist town of Lijiang failed to appreciate the Mosuo’s craft and sold the precious scarves at cut-rate prices in order to be competitive with mass-produced goods.
“We do not know how to do business. Now scarves are made by machines, so sales of our hand-woven scarves were particularly difficult,” says Aqi-Duzhima, leader of the Mosuo Traditional Weaving Association. “We could not find a way out.”
To help the struggling community, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched a culture-in-development project to introduce Mosuo craft to an international audience and create new markets.
The project emphasizes the unique tradition and handmade aspect of the Mosuo’s handicraft. Every scarf tells a story and shows that people’s passions and livelihoods are deeply embedded in cultural roots and traditional way of life.
The opportunity to sell the scarves in Singapore raised the value of Mosuo products. Each scarf sells, on average, for 200 Chinese Yuan (US $33), and the weavers earn around $20 per item.
Ethnic minorities comprise 8.49 percent of the population in China. According to the State Ethnic Affairs Commission (SEAC), over 40 million ethnic minority individuals are still living in extreme poverty, constituting 32 percent of the country’s poor. UNDP has been working with the SEAC and the China International Centre for Economic and Technical Exchanges since 2006 to plan and implement poverty-reduction initiatives for these groups.
Chinese cosmetics firm Jala Group signed on in 2011, bringing in more financial backing and business knowledge. Currently, the partnership supports four of the most vulnerable minorities across three culture-based development projects, benefitting over 2,500 people. Goals include raising awareness about ethnic cultural diversity, promoting the unique value of cultural products, and increasing the cultural recognition and pride of local communities.
Assimilating into modern culture without compromising their cultural identity remains the Mosuo’s biggest challenge, and access to the world market at Tangs represents a new beginning for them. Success means new opportunities: the women hope it will help kick off a broader base of retail outlets for their own and other ethnic communities amongst more affluent foreign markets.
But success also means not abandoning tradition: mothers can again believe that weaving is a gift they can proudly pass down to their daughters.
“A full, vibrant life for my children. That is my dream,” says Luru-Dashima, amid spools of colourful thread, her fingers never idle.