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China Making Ming Furniture AUG7 1995

THE EARTH TIMES/FROM BEIJING

AUGUST 7, 1995

Entrepreneur: He started carving jade; now he markets internationally

BY ASHALI VARMA

QUKO, China-In Hebei Province, about 50 miles to the east of Beijing, lies this picturesque little town in the county of Xianghe. The countryside is lush and green and men and women tend the rice and corn fields together. This is an area where for  generations agriculture was the main source of income that is, till the Xianghe County Jade Setting Factory started making jade inlay furniture, copied from the Ming and Qing dynasty periods.

Driving through narrow lanes you come across long brick buildings where workers are busy modeling wood and carving jade to make exquisite inlay furniture, from screens to cabinets, from chests of drawers to smaller, decorative pieces that eventually reach markets from California to Thailand.

The owner, Zhang Xue-Cai, is a 46-year-old man who was born and brought up in the farmlands around Quko, where his parents still farm. Zhang started the factory in 1986, encouraged by China’s new economic reform policy. Today he has 200 people working for him, of whom 100 are women. He has annual sales are in the range of US$800,000 and his vision for the future is to be the leader in foreign markets for this kind of furniture. His son and daughter, both in their 20s, work with him, as do two brothers. His son graduated from art school and is a manager in the factory.

“After school I started working in a government factory carving jade,” Zhang said. “Then in 1986 I decided I wanted to start something of my own. I also realized that there was a great potential for jade and lacquer period furniture in foreign markets.”

Zhang set up a small workshop with seven local investors and a budget of 10,000 yuan, or the equivalent of US$1,233, at the current exchange rate of US $1=8.11 yuan. With loans from the bank and the government they managed to expand the volume and today Zhang proudly claims that they export to the US, France, South Korea, Italy and  Thailand.

When asked why so many of his employees were women, he said, “Women’s participation is not new to China. I know women are good at carving and lacquer work and are very creative. I also felt that without this opportunity, most young women finish school and work in their family farms for only about 100 yaun. Now they earn seven times more and there is scope for them to be more than just housewives. Besides they are able to have better lifestyles.”

Zhang introduced his production manager, a beautiful, shy Chinese woman who is 30 years old. She has been working for him for seven years.

“Liu Yinda started as a worker but we discovered she had the potential to be much more. Today she is the backbone of the factory and in charge of planning and production,” he said.

Liu is married with two daughters, 7 and 9 years old. Her husband works as a technician in  another privately owned factory. She grew up in the area and her mother is a farmer while her father is a school teacher.

“After my graduation, I wanted to go to university but I failed my entrance exams,” said Liu. “I worked for three years as a teacher in a local school and then came to work here.” Liu describes her initial experiences with working in a factory. “I was shy at  first because I thought I had less education and very little knowledge. But now with my responsibilities here, I have gained confidence and really enjoy my work,” she said.

She is saving money because she thinks it is important for her daughters to go to college, learn foreign languages and either teach or be interpreters.

Li Xoumin is another worker who grew up in the village. At 41 she is married with two sons. She has been working with Zhang for three years. Before that she used to tend the family fields and work at home and take care of the children.

Although she had also finished high school she hadn’t thought of a job till she heard about the factory. “I don’t know what I would have done without this work,” she said. “I was bored at home and now I have something to do, which I really enjoy.” Li specializes in lacquer work and enjoys the creativity involved in the fine painting of furniture from the Ming and Qing periods.

“My husband is a school teacher and my most important dream is to save money for my children’s higher education. I want my children to be good in English,” said Li.

“Even the villagers understand the need for higher education,” said Zhang, adding, “One of our concerns is that with the open policy of the government we must keep up with the newer emerging technologies. The only way for China to catch up and be developed is to make sure our children arc prepared for the competitive world. As a Chinese I feel the change in our country. In all aspects we are better off, in food, clothing, freedom to do

business. These are great changes.”

Family planning: Now, less administration

BEIJING-The people living in farming communities Chengde, about 150 miles northeast  here in Hebei Province don’t talk much about Cairo or the results of the Conference on Population and Development held there last September. But the Cairo Conference is already having an effect on their lives.

Reports from Chengde say local officials of the family planning program are turning their attention away from “strict administrative control” and toward providing health care women of childbearing age.  Officials have even begun offering help to infertile couples trying to conceive.  Greater attention to reproductive health care was one of the principal changes in family planning policy endorsed by the Cairo Conference’s program of action. It also called for less emphasis on numerical population goals.

Chengde has often been cited for the success of its family program in reducing population

numbers.

When the program was instituted in the 1980s, the birth rate in the area was 17.6 per  thousand; by 1992 the birth rate had dropped to 11.7 per thousand.

According to Pei Kunlin” director of Chengde’s family planning commission, as quoted in the newspaper China Daily, the shift in emphasis from population “targets” toward education and health services will increase the cost of the program. Pei said local family planning workers still face the threat of a potential population explosion.’ “Once we are lax in family planning,” said Pei, “all that we have achieved· is spoiled.”

Officials in Chengde have begun using financial incentives to encourage couples to limit the size of their families. One example: Only families with one child (or two daughters) can receive priority for loans.’ Local authorities are also buying these couple pension insurance to provide security in their later years.

“Only in this way,” said Pei, “will we be able to overcome the traditional thinking that favors boys but not girls.”