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Yi people stage fashion shows to walk out of poverty
Publication time:2018-04-09  | Author:​Xinhua

Donning a rooster-shaped hat, a flower-patterned blouse and pair of black, white and pink trousers, Li Ruxiu swaggers on the catwalk like a supermodel.

Li, 56, is one of the models on "Yi Embroidery Street" in Yongren County in southwest China's Yunnan Province. She was employed by the county government last year to present clothes made by the Yi people, an ethnic minority, in Yongren's Zhizuo Village. The village is one of the poorest areas in the country.

"When I am on stage, I am the happiest girl in the whole world," Li said. "On stage, I get to show our unique clothes designed and made by ourselves, which boosts sales on the street."

The street is part of a government effort to lift the villagers out of poverty. Seeing the potential of the embroidered clothes and using the village's thousand-year tradition of fashion shows, the government set up the street in the county center, employing people from Zhizuo to showcase their garments. The government also offers free street stores to help the Zhizuo people sell Yi clothes.

Since the street opened to the public in early 2017, more than 1.77 million tourists have visited.

"Life is getting much better these days," Li said.


The fashion show tradition originated more than 1,300 years in Zhizuo Village, about 70 km away from Yongren county seat. The village has more than 2,000 registered residents, mostly of the Yi ethnic minority.

"Women in the village have always been very good at embroidery," Li said. "There is a saying in our village: If you cannot embroider your own wedding dress, you will never find a husband."

At the beginning of every lunar new year, locals would wear the ethnic clothes and stage a "costume contest," which has evolved into the fashion shows in recent years.

The event is also an occasion for trading among locals, and an opportunity for young people to get hitched.

At such events, a host wearing a mysterious hat starts by burning incense and bowing to ancestors. Men wearing tiger-headed clothes then blast horns. And the fashion show begins.

"There are usually five groups of models, the Grandpa Team, Grandma Team, Men's Team, Women's Team and Children's Team,' and they take turns to walk into the stage," Li said. "We wear the most unique clothes made by women in the family."

People as old as 80 and children just a few years old participate.

"I started taking part in the fashion shows when I was five," Li said.

Following the contest, locals would organize other activities, such as walking on stilts and tug of war.

Despite its fashion, the village has been mired in poverty. Zhizuo sits deep in the mountains of Yunnan, and transportation is very difficult. In 2006, the first highway connected the village with the outside world. In recent years, many Zhizuo people have left for big cities to make money, leaving behind the elderly, children and women.

Some thought about selling clothes embroidery to make money.

"The images embroidered on the clothes are unique," Li said. "We embroider birds, flowers, ox heads, butterflies and tiger heads." Tiger heads are a totem of the locals.

"But it was too difficult to find buyers because Zhizuo is a remote place," Li said. "We had no knowledge of e-commerce."


To help locals escape poverty, the county government decided to use the fashion shows to lure visitors. A blitz of promotions featuring the "costume contest" and the "Yi embroidery" have been launched in recent years, drawing great attention.

In 2016, Chinese model Mary Ma caught wind of the Yi embroidery and added Yi elements to her clothes presented at 2016 China Fashion Week.

Last year, the government set up the "Yi Embroidery Street." Every Saturday night, Yi models like Li Ruxiu are invited to present their clothes on the catwalk. The villagers then hold their "costume contest" ceremony, which begins by paying tribute to ancestors and ends with the fashion shows.

The decision proved positive. Visitors swarmed in and business in the street soared.

By February 2017, Yi clothes sales revenue reached 6.65 million yuan (1.1 million U.S. dollars).

Riding on the back of the catwalk success, the government launched "Yi Costume Contest Week" and a "Weekend Costume Contest" in Yongren. The contest has been listed on the provincial intangible cultural heritage list.

"I am just happy that our tradition helped many Yi people out of poverty," Li said. "I hope our fashion shows will be better and more international in the future."

Text from:china.org.cn editor: luoBOyamo  |  announcer: luoBOyamo