Home / China / China

Yugur woman mixes business, philanthropy and art in a successful melange

By Li Yang and Xue Chaohua in Sunan, Gansu | China Daily | Updated: 2015-11-17 07:55

 Yugur woman mixes business, philanthropy and art in a successful melange

A Yugur woman in traditional ethnic costumes dresses up for her wedding in the Sunan Yugur autonomous county in Gansu province in August. Wang Jiang / For China Daily

Businesswoman Serkyi is a modern day Renaissance woman, known among the Yugur as a tribal "junkwoman", museum owner, horseback-riding elementary school teacher, khata maker and painter.

In her newly finished Yugur museum, which holds more than 1,000 articles she collected from tribal herdsmen in Sunan Yugur autonomous region, Gansu province, Serkyi is preserving and protecting the cultural heritage of those who live between the Tibetan and Loess plateaus.

Serkyi, 54, is known as a "junkwoman" in her tribe because "she collects everything about the Yugur, from needles to worn-out tools used to make leatherware to rotten burial gifts", said her daughter, Marjan Sun.

Two years ago, a businessman from South China offered to build her a museum in exchange for a porcelain bottle in her collection.

"I turned down his offer, even if I needed the money," Serkyi said. "There are about 10,000 Yugur people. The articles belong to them."

Lifelong hobby

She started collecting such things in 1978 when she began working as a "horseback" elementary school teacher in the grasslands after graduating from junior middle school.

"I had never thought the rubbish was so important for our people," she said.

She also collected the beautiful old handicraft wares created by Yugur folk artists.

"I have liked painting since my childhood. The beautiful patterns my mother embroidered on cloth and the picturesque landscapes of the grasslands inspired me to draw them on paper," Serkyi said.

She studied painting with Sun Renru, a researcher in a local museum, for eight years until she received an offer from the arts department to attend the Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, in 1987.

She studied oil painting there. Her tutors, well-known artists themselves, told her when she graduated that if there were a distinguished Yugur oil painter, it must be her.

After leaving school, she worked at the public museum in Sunan and continued her old hobby of collecting "rubbish". She also painted the government's public and economic policies on plywood boards to make it easier for the Yugur herdsmen to understand.

"My husband is very supportive," Serkyi said. "He makes art works himself, and has never complained that I exhausted all our savings to buy the 'junk'."

Value of arts

Serkyi recalled her first visit to Taiwan in 1999, in the company of a central government-organized ethnic cultural heritage delegation. She made khata, a silk scarf given as a greeting gift in Tibetan Buddhism, slippers and embroidered bags for the show.

She called her husband at midnight in exited tears, after counting in a restroom all of the New Taiwan dollars and US dollars she received. She had made about 50,000 yuan ($7,900) in a week. But her husband simply did not believe her, since the average monthly wage in Sunan was only about 200 yuan per head at that time.

"That was the first time I felt the Yugur culture's value in the market," Serkyi said. "Only when the folks see their products can make money, can the old skills really have vitality and be passed down to younger generations."

Today, Serkyi runs a Yugur handicraft workshop with 28 workers. The business generated about $100,000 in profits last year, she said. She bought the township co-op that was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2005. She taught cloth weaving, embroidery, cooking, leatherware making, tent building and more to 10 disciples for free, including her son and daughter.

Legacy from mother

In Lanzhou, Serkyi developed a serious heart disease and retired early in 2005.

Serkyi said she learned most of her artistic skills and Yugur customs from her mother Sonamkyi, who died at age 84 in 2009 after raising seven children, including two adopted orphans, alone after her father committed suicide.

"She was fluent in six to seven languages, and was a kind-heart Yugur woman," Serkyi said.

"It is miracle that my mother could bring up all these kids alone after my father died in 1961, when she was three months pregnant with me."

Her father, a herdsman, committed suicide after being persecuted for giving food to some hungry "class enemies", Serkyi said. She and her mother did not find her father's grave until 2006 during a government project to relocate old graves.

Serkyi attributes all of her skills and achievements to her mother's legacy.

"My mother told me to swallow all the hardships of life, and be happy and always focus on the meaningful things of life," Serkyi said.

Editor's picks
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349