LIFE / CULTURE
Young Derung ethnic minority web celebrity shines light on poverty alleviation
Weaving a rainbow
Published: Jun 26, 2022 07:22 PM
Li Yuhua (center) and her parents Photo: Courtesy of Li Yuhua Women of the Derung ethnic minority group weave Derung blankets. Photo: VCG

Women of the Derung ethnic minority group weave Derung blankets. Photo: VCG

Li Yuhua (center) and her parents Photo: Courtesy of Li Yuhua Women of the Derung ethnic minority group weave Derung blankets. Photo: VCG

Li Yuhua (center) and her parents Photo: Courtesy of Li Yuhua

Editor's Note:

Young people from China's various ethnic minority groups, especially Gen Z, are making themselves heard on social media. They not only display breathtaking ethnic art, local delicacies and exquisite ethnic clothing, but also presenting the best from their hearts like festivals and local customs. As the number of online celebrities in China grow, these figures are showing off trendy and cool lifestyles. The Global Times has talked to them and discussed how to make ethnic minority regions better through efforts to alleviate local poverty and improve people's living standards. Each of their stories constitutes a microcosm of the Chinese people's yearning for a better life that can allow the world to better understand the country's unity in diversity.

In the middle of the day, firewood crackles at the center of the room as potatoes and eggs are roasted on the fire and the fragrant scent of cooked rice emanates from a rice cooker.

In the outdoor courtyard, Li Yuhua and her family are weaving a blanket. Their fingers go up and down, pushing and pulling repeatedly as colorful cotton threads are woven into the exquisite cloth. It looks as if a rainbow is flying down from their hands.

This scene harmoniously combining traditional and modern lifestyles is right out of the daily life of Li, a web celebrity from the Derung ethnic minority group. With just over 7,000 people living along the border between Southwest China's Yunnan Province and Myanmar, the Derung is one of China's smallest ethnic groups.

Li often records these scenes from ordinary life with her cell phone and uploads them to share her happiness with netizens. 

"After getting rid of poverty, we have more convenient transportation and more abundant supplies. This is what I want to show to others who are not familiar with my ethnic group," Li told the Global Times. 

In 2018, the Derung ethnic group shook off poverty as a whole. Modern industries have replaced a slash-and-burn farming lifestyle that had lasted for thousands of years. Li's hometown has now become one of the first towns in Yunnan to be connected to a 5G network.

Getting with the times

Li created an account on livestreaming platform Douyin, the Chinese name for Tik-Tok, not too long ago. But, despite the short time, she has already earned thousands of followers.

The contents of her video clips are simple, mostly about her daily life or taking netizens on virtual tours of her river town, which is the only settlement of the ethnic group in China.

She often points her lens at the elderly in the town and introduces their stories and the Derung's ancient traditions. At the same time, her videos focus on the changes that are taking place in town such as new paved roads, the introduction of 4G, radio and TV, and the rising popularity of the Derung blankets.

The rainbow-colored Derung blanket makes frequent appearances in Li's videos. A simple domestic loom can weave multicolored yarn into a unique colorful blanket whose patterns are only limited by the weaver's imagination. It is for this reason that the Derung people have been called the "rainbow weavers."

Traditional Derung blankets are hand-woven by women and made from hemp growing wild in the mountains. It usually takes weavers around two months to finish a single blanket.

In April 2014, a road and tunnel to the isolated town were completed. From then on, Li and her family were able to buy diverse cotton thread from other places much more conveniently. This helped shorten the time it took to make a blanket to one week.

The introduction of 4G brought online shopping to the town. Li began to purchase materials to make blankets on e-commerce platforms and then used the ancient skill to weave various handicrafts to sell to people around the world.

"I've made backpacks, scarves and hats using Derung weaving. Many people liked my idea," Li said.

Bi Yumei and Long Jiangying are also blanket weavers in the town. Since 2015, the two have attended a training project held by the Youth Entrepreneurship Association in Yunnan Province to improve their weaving skills. 

Long's work has even been put on display at the Venice Biennale.

Hope for the future

Li recalled that her mountain hometown would often become isolated for up to six months due to snow storms so they lacked access to daily life necessities and had to eat what they had stored.

"Now we have abundant food and even when a snow storm comes, the vans selling vegetables and other food can arrive in the village through the road," Li said.

The elderly residents in the village have remarked how time flies and say they long to have more time to enjoy the town now that poverty has been eradicated. 

Li and other young Derung people are seeking to make the future even brighter. They want to further develop tourism in the town, opening hotels and restaurants for visitors and to attract more travelers.

They also have an increased awareness about environmental protection, with many of them volunteering to become forest rangers.

They are also trying to learn more information about how to effectively use the internet to connect with the world. "Our life will get better and better," Li said.