The New Silk Road
From Suzhou to Sonoma
By Mike Lee
Legend says a Princess, daughter of the Yellow Emperor in China discovered silk when a cocoon fell out of a mulberry tree into her tea one day. She saw the threads unravel and had the idea to spin it. Her name was Si-ling. To this day some silkworm farmers say a prayer to her each spring.
Suzhou (pronounced "Sue Joe") was founded over 2,500 years ago. It has been a city long noted for its Venice-like canals and remarkable gardens. The city, now an international tourist destination, has a bustling urban center with crowded streets and high rises.
That's what most people see when they visit.
Drive twenty minutes out and you will find villages that are considered part of Suzhou, but life there is a world apart. The homes have small gardens or fish ponds. Even the village or town center has a small town feel to it with low two-story brick buildings and only the intermittent car or truck passing by groups of people standing around talking and passing time.
Fan Su Jing has lived here in Tong An village all her life. Her house sits behind an expansive pond of lotus plants and has a curved, tile roof and large rooms. It has the look of being hundreds of years old. We're sitting in her spacious front room, which has a family banner on one wall and only a few chairs. At sixty-one, she is wiry and energetic. Her eyes sparkle as she laughs at my questions. Today she's taking a day off to work with her adult daughter and neighbors hemming playsilks.
On market days, she is off before dawn, driving to her neighbors' ponds to buy fish. When the markets open, she's there with large tubs full of water, weighing out live fish off the back of her truck. "The fish, how big?" I ask. She holds out her arms, like she's holding a huge watermelon. She explains that when she had young children, she and her mother would sit in this same room and hem scarves. The family relied on her husband working in their rice fields for the main part of their income, but the hemming was a help.
I ask her daughter Chun Hong how old she is. "Guess", she says. "Eighteen, nineteen at the most," I say. The room bursts into laughter. I'm thinking that my pronunciation must have been really bad this time. No, her neighbor explains that she's twenty-nine years old and has a ten year old boy! "What's your day like?" She gets her son up, makes breakfast, packs a lunch and makes sure he has all his books and homework ready and then they "zai" to school. There she loses me. Turns out that she means she rides her bike with him sitting on the rear rack. When she gets back home, she and the neighbors get together to hem. When school's over she "zais" him home. It’s time to make sure he does his homework, while she begins to make dinner. "Why do you hem scarves?" She gives me a look, as if now I've asked another ridiculous question. "I need the money, but if I take a factory job, I won't be home to take care of my son." Everyone in the room is nodding. "What does the hemming buy?" Chun Hong says that she spends it on a lot of family expenses, but she has just paid for new school clothes and food for the last week.
One recurring theme that was voiced by the women was their hope and pride for their child’s education. Some of the women had not finished high school and were proud that their children were going to do what they could not. These families lack the means to afford many of the after-school tutoring and music instruction for their children that others have. However, they are there for their children when school is over. They can make the family dinner and make sure that their children do their homework. Factory work can mean a time-consuming, standing-room only, bus ride across the city. Work days can be eight to twelve hours a day, six days a week. To these women, it is more important to be there for their children.
There are thousands of women in Tong An village that do hemming for many companies. Through a voucher system, we ensure that the women who hand sew the beautiful hems on our playsilks are paid at 25% above market rate.
With our own three children beneficiaries of a Waldorf education, we also feel a connection to the Waldorf movement in China. We have visited and support the Chengdu Waldorf School in Sichuan province. You may remember that the city of Chengdu suffered severe damage during the 2008 earthquake. With their own school in shambles, the teachers went out into the city to hospitals and parks to play games and tell stories to the children they would meet. The founders, Harry Wong and his wife Li Zhang, work tirelessly promoting Waldorf education to their parent community and organizing teacher trainings. Today, their school faces many of the same challenges that Waldorf schools face everywhere: communicating the relevance of Waldorf education in our changing world, training new teachers, building new classrooms, and finding a way to make their education affordable to Chengdu families.