Tales from the Road – China 2016

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Her fingers moved along the thread in experience and proficiency. Twenty years of embroidery had made this woman a master of her craft. The details seemlessly found their way onto her piece in a tasteful mixture of colors that formed a fragile face. It had taken her 386 days to layer her thread in designs meant to impress.

Her eyes moved along with her hands in harmony. She was trained to seldom look up resulting in her sight slowly withering with time.

Unfortunately in Li Jiang the loss of eyesight means the loss of utility, her time as the embroidery master was coming to a close. There was a clear aura of patience and wisdom around the gentle woman, well beyond her 30 years.

Her days begin with an early trip to the family farm. Hours are spent harvesting food that sustains the many relatives inhabiting the shared  house. She then makes breakfast, followed by an embroidery session if the light is strong enough to allow it. After hours of work in a completely silent environment ( embroidery demands one’s full attention) she retires  to the kitchen to make lunch. Next she takes care of the children who have by now returned from school which is miles away from the home. After some time spent with her children she goes back to the community studio and works until the sun slowly gives way to the moon.

Her everyday life consists of the same, tiring schedule. The family she cares for is one she was married into. Chosen at the tender age of 5 she was to look after a family as the wife of the eldest son. In Li Jiang this is known as a baby marriage– her role as a child was to learn how to maintain a home, be the sole breadwinner and mother.

Her husband’s primary role is to rest. Whilst all the women in the village labour over the maintenance of their lifestyle, the men play cards and smoke cigars.

The men have already payed their dues when they worked on the tea-horse road. This spanned across various towns in China all the way to Tibet, Bengal and Burma. Men had to carry 60-90 kilograms of tea on their backs or on horses (this equaled their own body weight.) This was an  incredibly dangerous job, often resulted in untimely deaths. After years of delivering tea the men decided that they had worked long enough. For the next generations it was the responsibility of the women to make up for their own lack of contribution in commerce over 60 years ago. The great grandfathers and grandfathers of the current generation worked in place of their contemporaries. The middle-aged men in Li jiang have never had to work.

Her fingers continue following her neat outlines. The sun rests on her shoulders and gives her energy to push on, despite her tired neck. This has been and will continue being her life.