Traditionwristbands nowal keepsake gives ethnic group a lift

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Zhao Poying, 86, makes embroidery balls in Jiuzhou village of Jingxi, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, last month. Almost all of the 500 households in the village are engaged in the business. ZHU XINGXIN/CHINA DAILY

For the Zhuang ethnic group in Southwest China, embroidered balls were once keepsakes given by lovers to show their affection.

Nowadays, however, in Jingxi, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, the brightly colored, silk-striped balls are a way to grow rich.

Jiuzhou, a picturesque village 9 kilometers from Jingxi, is regarded as the home of the Chinese embroidered ball. Annual production exceeds 5 million balls, about 90 percent of the market.

Almost every one of the 500 households in the village is engaged in the business.

The history of embroidered balls can be traced to the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Girls picked up needlework at a very young age. However, for a long time the balls were not well known´╝Źmainly because locals never thought they would interest people from outside.

Huang Xiaoqin, now 73 and the cultural inheritor of the handmade embroidered ball, brought them to the world.

She took up embroidery at the age of 8 and found she had a talent for making the silk balls.

In 2005, Huang was invited to Beijing to demonstrate how to make one. Her skilled performance and the delicate handicraft made a splash.

"People surrounded me and kept asking me what is it and what is it used for. I was greatly encouraged and realized that this is an opportunity for us," she said.

Since then she has received orders from all over the country.

A foreign trader discovered her works by chance through a local import-export company and placed an annual order valued at 100,000 yuan ($14,700).

Embroidered with images of lotus and mandarin ducks, the balls are regarded as a mascot and cultural symbol of the Zhuang people.

As overseas demand grew, Huang decided to make improvements. She replaced the traditional Chinese images with the spelling of the 12 months in English which turned out to be a commercial success and welcomed by foreign customers.

These days, thousands of tourists are attracted to the village every year and the balls have become a must-buy item. They generate 6 million yuan in annual sales.

However, with many young people leaving to work in cities, the elderly are left alone to continue the business.

What concerns Huang now is how to pass her skills on and still maintain high quality.

"Right now I offer free training for women in the countryside. The skill is, of course, important but innovation is the key to our success," she said.

According to Yang Zhaoyu, chairman of Jingxi New Development Group, the embroidered ball industry will play a leading role in boosting local tourism. The company already has plans to dig into the potential of local cuisine to make Jingxi attractive.

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