The traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples is widely recognized as an importance source of cultural value, philosophy and living practices.
In China, while the term ‘indigenous’ is not explicitly used, the government formally recognizes a diversity of ethnic backgrounds – a total of 55 ethnic minority groups are officially noted, and all of them are formally designated as equal in the Chinese constitution.
For a number of female-headed societies, women play a dominant role in nurturing and educating the next generation, and in the process transmit their languages, practices, beliefs, and other forms of cultural heritage.
This collection of pictures shows how UN-backed initiatives support ethnic minority women as they preserve traditional ancestral knowledge, from wool-weaving to lute playing.
The art of wool weaving
The art of wool weaving derives from the Lisu people, who use nature as part of their sustainable living and production practices. Lisu women are very particular about which kinds of wool are used in traditional weaving, with the wool from the backs and sides of the sheep deemed superior.
Through a three-month training program, 30 women were taught the intricate practice of traditional wool weaving. The women now independently produce their own work.
The Chinese Lute
The Qiben is a traditional ancient-sounding stringed instrument referenced in Lisu folklore. It is shaped like a guitar, made of wood and four strings, and is one of the main accompaniment instruments in Lisu beat dancing.
Traditionally, men played the Qiben while women sang and danced. However, in 2019, women in the Liguang village took the initiative to learn to play the instrument so that singing and dancing could be performed by all.
After a one-month of an intensive training course with Xiong Wenguang, an ‘ethnic-cultural inheritor’ from Liguang Village, 24 women are now proficient in Qiben, allowing them to participate in an arena which had previously been male-dominated.
Enhancing ethnic women’s roles in ecological protection
In forest villages, such as the Sechong Lok village, rules have been established for timber use, prohibiting all logging within the water source forests and requiring approval from the entire village to cut trees elsewhere.
To support the sustainable collection of matsutake mushrooms, the Bai and Naxi women reached an agreement that the mushrooms can only be picked when they are more than 5cm in size and are open and dispersed to allow the mushrooms to fully release their spores, and to ensure that mushroom ponds are not destroyed during picking. Women also patrol for possible theft of wood and herbs.
Today, communities are able to meet their family’s living expenses from the sole income derived from the mushrooms, honey, and wild herbs they harvest.
A thriving future
Recognizing the important role and contributions of these indigenous women not only enhances their status in society, but also promotes a greater sense of solidarity, and helps preserve their traditional knowledge and sustainable production practices.