An embroidered butterfly made by Liang Zhongmei is so lifelike that it could easily be mistaken for the real thing. It looks as if, in the twinkling of an eye, it could flap its colorful, delicate wings and fly free from its white cloth background.
The 55-year-old embroiderer in Zhenfeng county, Guizhou province, said a novel stitch used by the Bouyei ethnic group is the secret to producing the three-dimensional effect.
"In our culture, the butterfly is the spirit of nature and also represents the sound values of hard work," she added.
Liang, who lost her left arm as a child, opened a workshop at her home, from where she sells her artwork to customers from around the world. She is now a master of the Bouyei embroidery technique and an intangible cultural heritage inheritor. As a result, her life has changed significantly.
During this year's Singles Day shopping festival gala held in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, on Nov 10, a lion doll completed by six embroiderers in eight hours was livestreamed nationwide on television and websites.
"The doll is 30 centimeters tall and 30 cm wide. A number of colorful threads were used for the outer parts, while a golden thread formed the lion's mane. Dragon fruit was used to dye some threads pink," Liang said, adding that the auspicious design aims to bring health and peace to family members.
After the gala, Liang received numerous inquiries. Three customers ordered lion dolls, while some asked to buy other embroidered items. "After returning home, we encouraged young people to learn embroidery, which can increase understanding of our culture," she said.
Liang was born in a closed and underdeveloped village deep in the mountains, where most residents live by farming or as migrant workers. Losing her arm meant she could not feed herself, but she refused to become downhearted, and learned embroidery from her mother.
"I am unable to perform a wide range of tasks, but I'm confident about doing embroidery, although sometimes I prick myself in the leg, which causes bleeding. I have even managed to sew both legs of my trousers together by accident," she said.
Liang gained an enhanced reputation for her embroidery after producing several items featuring butterflies and goldfish that won provincial and national occupational skills awards in 2010 and 2011 among people with disabilities. She was then recognized as a local Bouyei embroidery inheritor.
In 2012, she opened her workshop, with embroiderers putting their designs on the shelves to sell to locals, but business was poor.
However, Liang's career prospered after two online vendors in Beijing and one in Hunan province placed orders. Now, clothes, ties, paintings and handicrafts produced by the workshop are sold to consumers worldwide via e-commerce platforms, with revenue earned by the business reaching from 300,000 yuan to 500,000 yuan ($47,089 to $78,481) annually.
As the number of orders rose, Liang recruited more workers. The workshop has offered jobs to more than 100 female embroiderers in the neighborhood. She has also organized training courses for jobless women.
"Thanks to the online buyers, our products sell well, which has changed our lives and brought us income and dignity," Liang said.
Wang Danqing, an online vendor, has collaborated with Liang's team since 2015, routinely placing orders every month.
"At first, embroiderers didn't trust online vendors, fearing we would possibly cheat them. They doubted whether we could sell their products, or if we would pay. They also questioned our designs," Wang said, adding that it took about six months for both sides to adapt to each other.
She said many young consumers favor products with cultural elements and personal appeal. To meet this demand, she combines intangible cultural heritage with merchandise such as sachets, bags and clothes featuring embroidered designs, batiks and woodcuts.
"Only by blending into modern life can cultural heritage be seen, loved, protected and passed down," she added.