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Shan Xiumei"s handmade cloth dolls are helping popularize the beauty of the various ethnic groups who call the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region home.
Shan, a member of the Han ethnic group, started creating the dolls 18 years ago, when the northwestern Chinese region began blossoming as a tourist destination.
"My family was very poor when I was young and there were no toys for children, but my mother made a doll for me. I liked it very much and started to make dolls myself from then," Shan said. To make her dolls stand out from the competition, Shan devised xiusu, a new form of craftsmanship that combines detailed embroidery with strategic stitching to create humanlike facial features and body shapes.
And although each doll"s countenance is fixed, xiusu doll clothes can be changed according to the whims of owners. Shan"s dolls are all custom made without the use of molds or patterns, so the expression and features of each doll"s face are one of a kind.
To better simulate human skin, Shan uses fabrics of varying textures and hues, and even paints their faces where needed to produce ruddy cheeks or arched brows. The size of Shan"s dolls also varies - from an inch or so to as big as a real person.
After nearly two decades of hard work, Shan"s doll-making business is now booming, but her original intention was not just to make money.
"It is a cultural product that displays the beauty of Xinjiang. People in Xinjiang are so beautiful that I want to show their beauty to the world through my dolls," she said.
Xinjiang is home to 47 ethnic groups including Han, Kazak, Mongolian, Tajik and Uygur.
Shan has been making dolls featuring the diverse characteristics of ethnic groups in the region. She said she has lived with different people so that she can fully understand them.
"When I want to make a dancing girl, I collect many materials according to not only what skirts they wear, but also what kind of dance they usually perform based on their customs. During the process, I better understand Xinjiang and the people living here, as well as their culture," Shan said.
In April, Shan traveled more than 4,000 kilometers and spent 10 days meeting hundreds of Kyrgyz people to help her create dolls from the 18th century epic Kyrgyz poem Manas, which is on the UNESCO list of masterpieces of intangible cultural heritage.
"To make perfect dolls, it is necessary to see the real lives of the people instead of pictures in books," she said. "Cultural products such as xiusu dolls play a significant role not only in the development of tourism in Xinjiang, but also in the cultural communication between China and the rest of world."
Around 50,000 xiusu dolls from Shan"s workshop are sold every year.
"Many foreign tourists tell us they love the dolls because they reflect the real lives of the people in Xinjiang," Shan said.
Her dolls have even been collected by the National Museum of China. In 2014, she was given an award of excellence by the World Crafts Council for her work depicting the entertainment traditions of the Uygur people.
In 2017, the China National Arts Fund launched a training project to cultivate xiusu skills. Thirteen trainees out of more than 100 applicants were selected.
"I believe that they will create more diverse xiusu dolls to show the beauty of Xinjiang to more people," Shan said.