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 Xiang he. The countryside is lush and green and men and women tend the rice and com fields together. This is an area where for generations agriculture was the main source of income that is, till the Xiang 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 fade 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, Zhilllg 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 of $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 emancipation 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 Yuan. 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 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 are 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.”