Empower women to support Tujia communities and culture

A Tusi excavation site in the mountains of Hunan province

On the way to a rural development project in Laosicheng we drive through various villages. Here, in the mountains of Hunan province, life is simple and people are mainly farmers. Occasionally a truck loaded with coal is passing by on the tiny mountain road. “The village populations are mainly elderly and children. Most of the people go to the cities looking for work," explains our companion, a woman of the local government. “It is hard for us to attract industry and fight poverty.”

Women receive training at Amity's Tujia tapestry workshop

It is very busy the time we arrive at our destination. It is a huge site excavation. We are in the autonomous prefecture of the Tujia, one of the 55 official ethnic minorities in China. During the feudal history of Chinese Dynasties, the Tujia, as well as many other ethnic tribes, were kingdoms or principalities. Thereby, they were integrated into the ancient imperial political structure through a native chieftain system called Tusi system. They were subordinated to central government, but also enjoyed a relatively large degree of autonomy. Often the Tusi kingdoms outlasted the changing dynasties. The kingdom of the Tujia in Laosicheng lasted more than 800 years.

Wan Mingzhu trains herself to traditionally weave Tujia artwork

“We applied to the UNESCO and hope that the Tusi capital would be accepted as a World Heritage site,” explains our companion. In a small village next to the excavation site, we are meeting Wan Mingzhu. The 17 year old girl works in a vocational center and learns how to weave and embroider thousand-year old Tujia tapestry. Mingzhu returned from the provincial capital to her home village. “I didn’t like the city. I was a waiter in a restaurant. When I heard that there are jobs here, I came back,” says Mingzhu without averting her eyes of her weaving loom. “With this development project we not only try to keep the cultural heritage of traditional handicraft alive, but also prevent the graying of the villages. Mingzhu is a success story,” explains the government official. “Meanwhile she has even managed to rebuild her family’s house.”

I am very impressed, considering the young age of the girl. I understand that the government wants to build up a sustainable development model with the help of tourism here. When I ask Wan Mingzhu, if she likes what she is doing, she says 'hai xing.' That means “It is ok.” Being a 17 year old girl in front of a loom, she looks a bit bored. But when she receives 2400 Yuan, her salary for the last three month, she has a broad smile across her face.

Wan Mingzhu receives an allowance for her vocational training

The women at the heritage site receive training for six month. During this time they get paid a small allowance. In addition, they receive the income of their handicrafts. The Amity Foundation supports the training and empowerment of these Tujia women and girls by contributing one third of their monthly allowance. The rest is paid by the local government. In July 2015, three Tusi excavation sites were included on the World Heritage list.

Amity's cultural prevention and empowerment project was introduced at Amity's 30th Anniversary Celebration