How Leaf-Vein Embroidery Changed This Chinese Lady’s Life for the Better

A leaf being embroidered with a blue bird sitting on a branch.

Leaf vein embroidery is a highly delicate task, and requires a lot of skill. (Image: Network Photo via NTDTV)

Yang Li, from the southern part of colorful Guizhou Province, has a unique skill called “leaf-vein embroidery.”

The embroideries range from birds over rivers to mountains, and are done on tediously prepared leaves.

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Traditionally, these so-called leaves have beautiful images of birds, rivers, and mountains embroidered on them.

While not long ago she was a total noob at the craft, today, her work is very popular among collectors of this ancient Chinese art form.

But Yang Li’s ability to practice this ancient art did not come overnight. In fact, she failed uncountable times, and literally almost lost all that was dear to her before she mastered the art. Today, she is even able to make a substantial living with her skill.

Miao village-style leaf-vein embroidery.
Miao village-style leaf-vein embroidery. (Image: Network Photo via NTDTV)

Yang Li’s story starts in 2011 in the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, where there is a place called Tongren. More than 30 ethnic enclaves live here possessing very unique customs and crafts, like the Miao embroidery, dying cloth, and beautiful handmade jewelry.

Every autumn, the little village of Tongren organizes a folk arts and crafts event. The best craftsmen/women from all around will come to take part and present their skills at this annual competition.

Yang Li desperately wanted to take part in this competition. So she spent day and night practicing her skill in the art of leaf-vein embroidery. Her relatives say she seemed “possessed by the devil,” completely focused on her task with only one goal — to succeed.

Every day, she would venture deep into the forest carrying a bamboo basket to pick leaves. Even the children joined in, collecting hundreds of leaves that they would drop off at the “crazy” lady’s house so she could do her testing.

Leaves after rubbing, washing, and drying, all ready for Miao village style embroidery.
Leaves after rubbing, washing, and drying. (Image: Network Photo via NTDTV)

The process of leaf-vein embroidery requires a tedious preparation of the leaves. First, they need to be cleaned, brushed, and dried. Then, a layer of rice milk is applied to them. Eventually, through this process, the leaves become a thin sheet of dry veins.

To soften the leaves, she would steam them with vinegar. She probably repeated this process a thousand times before the result was something usable.

Traditional Miao embroidery motif of houses on stilts.
A traditional motif of houses on stilts. (Image: Network Photo via NTDTV)

What was left from the original leaf was now as thin as an onion skin, a translucent white, and revealed the stem and veins clearly. Now, the pleated leaves were continuously dried under the sun. Then, finally, eureka! She had hacked it.

Now for the embroidery part. The leaf-vein embroidery process is very complex. One needs to be highly skilled and careful to ensure that the end result is perfectly finished. The most common embroidery works are those of bamboo and chrysanthemum merlin, and houses on stilts. The embroideries can also portray people, from simple to complex portraits, and can be single-sided or double-sided.

While things were going well on the one side, and the suspense was rising in anticipation of the upcoming competition, tragic things took place on the other side. Her business was running poorly. Her debt was growing sky high. Out of nowhere, her young son became sick and was diagnosed with lead poisoning, anemia, and a problem with his growth. It seemed like everything that could go wrong went wrong for Yang Li.

Finished leaf embroidery pieces, illustrating traditional themes of bamboo and chrysanthemum.
Finished pieces, illustrating traditional themes of bamboo and chrysanthemum. (Image: Network Photo via NTDTV)

The competition was just two months away. It was known that if you could become famous before the competition, perhaps you could earn a living with your craft.

Yang Li felt like she was racing against time itself. She spent day and night thinking about ideas. Eventually, her entire adventure turned into a business with 240 million orders.

She had to take up help from other ladies capable of embroidering. Again, they worked day and night, producing beautiful works of leaf-vein embroidery.

As much bad luck as Yang Li recently had, all the orders for her embroidery started adding up, and with it her fortune too. Yang Li is a beautiful lady. She likes to wear silver Miao-style earrings that are colorfully decorated in the style of her culture. She says: “Our Guizhou mountains and water are of such beauty, how could I not do them honor!”

Yang Li, as she embroiders, wearing traditional Guizhou region Miao-style jewelry.
Yang Li, as she embroiders, wearing traditional Guizhou region Miao-style jewelry. (Image: Network Photo via NTDTV)

In Yang Li’s mind, true beauty is in the virtue of endurance and waiting for what lies ahead. Her son has grown tall and strong. Many floods have come and gone, and what was lost to them has been gained again.

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