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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.


Since childhood, I’ve had a special fondness for drawing. I would spend hours on end with pencil and paper, bringing to life adventures that played out in my imagination. Art was my gateway into a virtual world that knew no bounds. Little did I expect that I’d develop a new appreciation for my childhood hobby through service work here in China.

It all started during an early December meeting at Eco-Women, one of the NGOs I volunteer with. This organization focuses on aiding local minority villages from an environmentalist-feminist perspective; since female villagers tend to be heavily involved in agriculture, we aim to raise their awareness of the dangers that pesticides bring to women’s health (pregnant women in particular), as well as to the environment. Whether it’s through community-wide surveys, conferences, or educational workshops, my co-workers and I provide villagers with resources for exploring these issues as well as challenges relating to the preservation of ethnic minority culture. For our big end-of-year project, we were putting together a recreational activity for women in Lisichong—a Miao minority village of about 50 people—incorporating materials that they otherwise lacked access to.

“What’s something you think the women would enjoy?” our director, Zuo Zhi, asked me and my co-workers. Although it was just the four of us in the office, the length of the conference table was covered in laptops, pens, and scribbled notebooks.

“Maybe make-up?” my mentor, Wang Ying, suggested. “It’s simple, but I’m sure any woman would appreciate things that can make her feel beautiful.”

“What about jewelry-making?” I pitched in.

Everyone’s head turned in my direction. Wang Ying’s idea had got me thinking about other things that could have similar aesthetic appeal, and jewelry immediately came to mind. I figured that in addition to creating pieces for themselves, the women could make ones that we could help them sell. Since Lisichong lacks land for its residents to produce much food beyond personal subsistence, any additional source of income could potentially transform their living standards.

As I explained all of this to my fellow staff members, raised eyebrows turned into enthusiastic nods. Although Eco-Women had never conducted a jewelry-making workshop before, my director and co-workers agreed to fund all the supplies that would be needed to make my idea come to fruition. The event was to take place on the following Thursday—the day we typically visit Lisichong—and I’d be in charge of the entire process from start to finish. My tasks involved preparing supplies, making a slideshow presentation, and leading the session itself. The work laid out before me was daunting, but equally exciting.

Thursday arrived with a sudden cold front. Icy winds wrapped my co-workers and me in a chilly embrace as we stepped into Lisichong’s modest community center. After the one-hour drive from Eco-Women’s headquarters, we were ready to get things going. Wang Ying set up a projector for the Powerpoint I’d prepared, while my other co-worker, Haiyan, helped me assemble four makeshift workstations, each stocked with beads and string. As the event’s starting time approached, my mind raced with questions and self-doubt: How do I address a room full of people in Chinese? Should I have spent more time on preparation? What if they find this whole activity just a waste of their time?

“I’m sure the women are going to love this,” Haiyan comforted me with a smile, noting the tension in my face.

As night fell, the villagers began to fill the room. Some were young girls, some were mothers with infants on their backs, some were elderly women wearing traditional headdresses. Even the village chief and his grandson quietly took their seats to join us. A total of twenty-two faces watched me curiously, with hints of weariness from a long day of drying corn and walnuts.

“Kaishile!” I called out, indicating the event was about to begin.

Although I frequently stumbled on words during my explanation of the activity in Mandarin, everyone nodded warmly with reassurance. Before I even finished, however, the women had already dug in. Their fingers guided the beads like a musician playing an instrument, stringing and pulling, stringing and pulling. Each work constituted a ripple within a vast sea of colorful patterns, eclectic yet unified in a dynamic rhythm. Collective fervor filled the air with an energy so intense it seemed to lessen the sting of cold in the unheated room. How did jewelry-making come so naturally to these villagers?

Bead. Bead. Knot. Bead. Knot. Knot. Bead. Bead. Bead. Knot. Bead. Knot. Knot. Bead.

As I observed this community of minds busy at work, it dawned on me: creative freedom. Jewelry-making, just like any art form, is an outlet for this aspect of human nature. It’s no wonder that I loved drawing so much, or that these women took to jewelry-making so readily. The bead and string were their pencil and paper. Until then, I’d been focused on the material benefits the workshop could bring the villagers; clearly, the experience was much more valuable than that.

After a couple hours flew by, and the participants exhibited their various pieces, my co-workers and I began packing things up to head home. The women helped us clean the space, laughing and thanking us for coming.

“Nimen zaici huilai zuo, nimen zaici huilai zuo!” several of them chanted. They wanted us to return and conduct another workshop. Nodding, we said we’d leave the supplies for them to use as they liked in the meantime.

As we began driving out of the village, the women all stood together in the distance waving goodbye. Dark as it was, the new bracelets glimmered on their wrists.