Late into the evening during a recent trip to Ningxia Hui autonomous region, I couldn’t stop thinking of Hai Yan, a “wonder woman” I had met at a factory in Minning, operating in support of poverty relief efforts.
Her Cinderella-like transformation, which I had learned about in the course of a video shoot, left me feeling so inspired that I gushed about her to my husband in our usual nighttime video call, even though it was nearly 11 pm and I had to get up early the next morning.
As a child, Hai grew up in an arid, mountainous village deemed one of the most inhospitable places in the world for living. Photos of her at the age of 5 or 6, rosy-cheeked and dressed in a festive red down jacket, seemed to belie the hardships of her youth. She never finished primary school, dropping out to start working, along with her older sister, to support the family after their mother had become disabled and confined to a wheelchair. Eventually she and the family migrated to Minning, moving into a Hui community with neat rows of one-story brick homes and willow trees, but even then her life trajectory diverged little from that of the typical local woman.
“Before I joined the plant, I was just a housewife and didn’t really have a lot of thoughts about my life,” she shared with me.
Initially, when Hai entered the factory as it first opened in September 2019, she was an average worker at the plant, sorting and packaging local specialty foods such as the region’s celebrated goji berries. But when COVID-19 arrived there, a shift in strategy at the factory suddenly paved the way for her debut in the spotlight. The management decided to train the workers, of whom 99 percent are young women, to do livestreaming to promote products online.
Those “diamonds in the rough “among the employee roster soon revealed their true luster during the training session. And once it was over, the six most outgoing and lively of the bunch, including Hai, were tapped to form a star team of livestreamers known as qiaoxifuer, or “talented wives”.
For Hai, becoming a qiaoxifuer has truly been a dream. She makes more through commissions, depending on the success of her livestreams, and now brings home the biggest salary in the household, one far exceeding her husband’s earnings as a construction worker. Wearing a chic black boater hat with a glittery band of rhinestones, she spoke with joy of the freedom that comes from being able to spend her own money. And with a sparkle in her eye, she shared her future goal: to one day start her own online business promoting local specialty products while empowering other women just like her, perhaps creating more real-life fairytales in the process.
I was particularly touched by how Hai’s rise to household breadwinner had also changed the family’s traditional preference for boys. “Now they really like girls,” she said with a proud grin－surely for her young daughters, one in kindergarten and the other in elementary school, growing up surrounded by loved ones who now value women and might hope for them to follow in their mother’s footsteps.
Hai may be the wonder of her family, but she was also one to me－an unforgettable example of how the internet has powered not only poverty relief but also extraordinary new ambitions, especially for women.