During May of 2017, I embarked on a 28 day trip to Xizhou, a small town in the Southwest of China, as part of the Microcampus program. The aim of Microcampus was for students to gain experiential learning, personal growth, intercultural understanding, and spread positive impact. Prior to the trip, we all had to choose a topic of high personal interest to study during our time here. After many days of consideration, I have finally settled on the topic of embroidery.
Initially, my main interest was in architecture or tea, since I never saw myself embroidering or doing something that required patience or detail. But after some investigation and thought, I have decided on embroidery. I realized that studying embroidery could enable me to do something hands on, something I am passionate about (design/art), and something that challenges me. Especially after reading Ryane's inquiry project, I was excited to create my own embroidered piece.
In general, I divided my sources into three categories: those who specialize in antique embroidery, those who specialize in modern embroidery, and those who embroider for a living. The ones who specialize in antique embroideries, such as Mr. Zhu, were antique owners. The ones who specialize in modern embroideries, like Ms. Li, tends to sell non-original pieces and differ greatly from traditional embroidery in either technique or style. Finally, those who embroider for a living are mostly elders who spend their retirement embroidering to make money, such as Yang Nainai. The reason I chose those sources was that I thought these three categories, I was able to see a clear history of embroidery through them.
I started out with no clue with what my final project will be, so I decided to get a great variety of sources. However, after the first week, I noticed how the first couple sources (Mr. Zhu, Ms. Li, and Yang Nainai) gave me a pretty solid timeline of embroidery's history. Through different conversations, I noticed how my favorite conversations were the ones who share more of their personal experience compared to those who answer technically. I found personal stories much more interesting than learning about the art itself.
As I mentioned before, I had no idea where to begin, so my questions started with general questions on embroidery. Originally, I planned to narrow my research down to a couple related questions from my 10 Big Questions, to find my final product. However, after a conversation with Yang Nainai, I became very interested in the connection between embroidery, women, and history. Then my questions began to focus more on history than technique. I also repeated multiple of already answered questions to different sources to verify my information.
In order to understand the change over time of Bai Minority embroidered shoes, one must consider: the Min Guo time period (1912-1949), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and the 21st century and beyond.
Sharing My Learning
If the video above does not work, click here to see my final product.
From this astounding 28 day experience, I have gained knowledge, and above all, a new outlook towards life. In Xizhou, I was able to appreciate the small things in life that I have not noticed before. Through still time, I was able to take time out of a busy schedule, and observe. Silently observing built up my observation skills, and I noticed I became more alert with the things around me and began to notice details I would have never noticed before. Another way I have grown was through my interactions with locals. I became less scared to approach a stranger and started conversations with locals easily. In Shanghai, I tend to keep my head down or avoid eye contact on the streets, but in Xizhou, I just smile and say hi, even to complete strangers.
Throughout my inquiry project, my topic has been straying further and further away from embroidery. But in the end, I was still able to incorporate embroidery with history, which I believe, made embroidery much more interesting. Originally it was just the general topic of embroidery, and I did not know where to start. However, throughout my Phase 3, my project began to take shape with each conversation. I narrowed down my general topic to studying embroidered shoes, and then down to the history of embroidery through shoes. Through Mr. T's suggestion, I ended up studying three distinct pairs of shoes that represent three different time periods.
The most difficult part of my research was perhaps the initial conversations. Thankfully, my first conversations were successful, but to me, the following were not. This was because I was not used to talking to strangers on a daily basis, and I felt even the most basic of conversations were overwhelming. Throughout the conversations, I have been reminding myself Mr. T's advice: that it was only awkward because I feel awkward. Initially, the advice did not seem very relevant or important, but after a couple more conversations, I forced myself to be bold. Although now, I still occasionally panic when talking to strangers, I have eased up more around the locals compared to the beginning of the trip. Especially after I learned that they tend to be very kind and welcoming.
In my project, I believe my "a-ha" moment was when Yang Nainai told me about the bound feet. From my first conversation in Xizhou with Mr. Zhu, I heard of feet binding, along with some previous knowledge on the topic. But Yang Nainai gave me a connection between the two seemingly uncorrelated topics. When she explained why embroidery was so popular back then, she mentioned one of the influences to be feet binding. It was because of feet binding, women were not able to work in the fields, so they worked with their hands. After my conversation with her, Mr. T explained to me his connection: that the Liberation did not only liberate women's feet, they also liberated women. Women were treated more equally in society with their ability to work. This marked the beginning of an industrial age in China, but also meant the end of a traditional art form.
This project taught me much more than just embroidery. Through the inquiry project, I was able to understand the connections of embroidery to the rest of China. The things that influence embroidery also influenced society, even though embroidery seemed untouchable by the influences. Aside from influences, I also learned much about the history of a country I lived in for 9 years. Embroidery was a gateway to the untold histories of China. So I took that advantage and learned multiple topics (history, beliefs, and traditions) at once. Embroidery also brought me closer to minority traditions and showed me great differences between different minorities I would have never noticed before.
Through this project, I was able to make many friends in the local community and step out of my social bubble. To me, the project was an excuse to make conversations with locals, and an excuse for me to step out of my comfort zone. I was able to befriend store owners and elders of the community, who shared exhilarating stories of the past. To my surprise, some even offered to teach me how to embroider. They were very welcoming to a complete stranger learning a dying art. Through this project, I was able to connect with people and stories I would never be able to connect with in Shanghai.
The inquiry project taught me many great and not-so-great qualities about myself. The first thing it revealed to me was my laziness. The inquiry process was long, dull, and repetitive in the beginning, and I avoided work. This created great moments of stress with last minute work, and since I have arrived in Xizhou, I have been avoiding procrastination. Through conversations with locals, it revealed my ability to make conversation, which I never thought I had. In Shanghai, I tend to walk away from difficult conversations or having the other party to make the conversation. The inquiry project did not allow that. Although it was difficult for me in the beginning, I was used to making conversations and keeping conversations. Some sources answer in simple answers, but even through them, I was able to extrapolate information. The project forced me to learn through conversations instead of textbooks, and I found myself as someone who could do both.
If I was able to do something differently in the beginning of the project, I would have made more of an effort to find more sources. Compared to others, I had very few sources, because my 3-to-5's repeated the same couple sources over and over. If I was given the opportunity to go back to Phase 3, I would visit other contacts mentioned by my main sources. I suggest those who plan to study embroidery in Xizhou should interview a variety of people who embroider, such as focusing more on the locals who embroider. And there are many people who embroider, especially elders in Sifangjie, all it takes is a little effort to start a conversation. They would be happy to tell their story and the art they are maintaining.
I would like to thank Yang Nainai, who was so kind to share her story and passion of a tradition. Mr. Zhu, who welcomed me to take photos of his collection and for showing stunning pieces of history. Ms. Mai, who patiently supported me and aided me when I had difficulties making conversation. Finally, Mr. T, who provided great insight and motivation for my project, and helped me feel comfortable in a new environment.
The inquiry project taught me so much more than just embroidery. Through multiple conversations, stories, and interactions, I was able to learn things I would have never learned in a classroom. To others, the project may have been a tedious and dreaded work, but to me, it was a rare opportunity to learn in a unique way. In the end, it maximized my Microcampus experience and gave my something great to take back to Shanghai.