A Jiangnan Woman with Grand Aspirations

Feb 21, 2019

Hu Yufang 胡毓芳, born and bred by Lake Taihu, an area known for its sericulture, has a special emotional bond with silk. This passion propelled her to create a business chain, starting with the growing of mulberry trees and extending to pure silk products and her now famous silk brand “Taihu Snow.” But this love for silk is by no means confined to her own business: It generated a bigger aspiration—the revitalization of the silk industry in Suzhou, indeed in all of China.

A Delayed Coming-together

Born in Shengze, widely known as a China’s “Silk Capital,” Hu Yufang was surrounded by sericulture in her youth. Her father was a government official in sericulture management, and was often away advising farmers how to raise silkworms scientifically. “My mom picked mulberry leaves and raised silkworms. After selling her cocoons, she would take me to town and use the money to buy silk remnants to make me a new cheongsam.” This was the happiest of her childhood memories. In the 1980s, sericulture was quite thriving in the region, everywhere there were mulberry trees being grown and silkworms being raised. “Those days, if you landed a job connected to silk, it was a cause of great respect.” Silk was already taking root in Hu’s being, but it took some time for it to flower.

After Hu graduated from a teacher training college, she was assigned to teach in Zhenze Town. Born in one silk town and working in another, destiny seemed to have a big hand in her life track, binding her with silken ties. “Whatever I undertake, I want to be the best at it.” As a fresh young graduate, she did become the most popular teacher at the school, even making her ideology and political education classes interesting. But even she could not know, when she devoted her youthful life to teaching, that in the start-up wave of the 1990s her entrepreneurial blood would rise and she would dive into the world of business.

Independent by nature, Hu quietly quit her respectable and steady job without a word to her parents, and went into the overseas silk trade business. Even when facing an uncertain future, she never rowed back on her decision. As she sees it, if you fear “wolves ahead of you and tigers behind,” you can never achieve anything big. About Her choice of this path she describes as “predestined.”

Unlike many silk makers and traders, she likes to dig to the bottom of things. While others are content just to have customers, Hu’s concerns never stopped there. “Floss silk quilts are traditional products of Zhenze. But why should quilts made of natural silk sell well only around Lake Taihu, and not enjoy greater popularity with consumers elsewhere?” Driven by this thought and by her love of silk, in August 2002, Hu started her own company in Zhenze, calling it “Taihu Snow,” a graceful and pleasant name that combines elegance and local connotations. Her fondness for silk grew even greater, in step with the gradual growth of her business. Once she had a company of her own, the question of how to go about growing the business plunged her into deep reflection. 

"I Am a New Silk Maker”

Hu set up her company some 10 years later than other new entrepreneurs. Yet what others saw as a tough road deterred her not one bit. “The route my business had to take was one of innovation. I am a new silk maker; I am different from the forefathers.” While veteran silk makers were cherishing their past glories, Hu embarked on a different silk road—a road of innovations in technology and management.

Floss silk quits made with traditional technology had a number of drawbacks—clumping up, to launder. These problems held back trade development and dampened consumer demand. Hu, a former teacher herself, was well aware of how important teachers can be. She often sought advice from veteran silk makers and experts to find the root causes of the problems and also collaborated with the Sericulture Research Institute of Soochow (Suzhou) University to look for breakthroughs in traditional technology. Within a year, they had solved each of the problems. In 2010, Taihu Snow silk quilts won Oeko-Tex certification—a label permitting access to the European market, the first such certification achieved by a home-textile producer in the floss silk quilt trade of Suzhou.

Since she saw innovative management as having equal importance to technological breakthroughs, Hu chose not to take the well-trodden, production-focused path of many veteran silk makers. From the very first day of her Taihu Snow business, she was clear that she was a brand creator, right then and even more so in the future. This did not mean, however, that her company would not accept orders other than for Taihu Snow brand products. On the contrary, she would accept limited-quantity orders that other producers were reluctant to take on, but on condition that the orders were upscale and involved high-end technology. She considered this a good opportunity to learn. In her view, adherence to high quality is the only way to show real respect for silk. “Pure silk should be a symbol of quality life. Why? Because it is green, environment-friendly, involves refined technique and has high artistic value.”

Since Day One of her company’s life, Hu has always been a go-getter, never relaxing her efforts. In her view, in establishing a new brand everything depends on one’s own efforts. On the matter of the 50 mil-lion yuan special fund set up by the Suzhou government in 2013 to sup-port development of the silk industry, she smiles and praises it as a good thing but stresses that the crucial factor is the enterprises themselves, and that “waiting, wanting, and depending” are the wrong attitudes for silk makers. “The share of the government fund that an average silk-making enterprise can get is just one or two million yuan. It’s just a drop in the bucket.” Her self-belief shines through.

Her confidence comes from her inborn acumen for the silk trade. The discovery that a female colleague from Suzhou had never used a floss silk quilt made her very upbeat and increased her confidence: “There’s such a large market for silk quilts in Suzhou even, not to mention all China!”

A Weighty Mission for Delicate Silk

A decade or so back, Suzhou’s silk industry was in the doldrums. This, far from being a purely local phenomenon, represented a nation-wide difficulty. In its share of total world output of materials China was well represented, accounting for 70 percent of cocoon, 70 percent of floss silk, and 45 percent of undyed greige silk production; but it fell far behind other countries such as Italy in terms of end products such as silk garments. Long gone were the days when the Swedish vessel Gothenborg, laden with silver equaling the nation’s annual gross national product, came plowing across oceans to buy in China, drawn by the magic of imperial silk apparel. Chinese silks no longer had such global appeal, whereas silks from the late-comers of Italy and Japan had become real luxuries.

Such things made her despondent. How to inherit and develop Suzhou’s silk culture? To get refined silk fabric into the homes of ordinary people, for silk to warm their hearts and bodies, for people around the world to appreciate the charms of Suzhou silk…. such ambitions Hu Yu-fang felt to be her personal social responsibility, not just a commercial dream for her brand.

Knowing something is one thing; doing it is another. This Jiangnan woman faced heavy pres-sure to really get to grips with this tricky responsibility. After repeated pondering, Hu became convinced that “currently the key task for the silk industry is to present and re-position itself in the global market. Upgrading the quality of individual silk products is important all right, but revitalizing the silk industry as a whole is even more important.” 

Hu believes that culture is the breakthrough point for revitalization of the silk industry. It is far from enough to simply transplant Chinese cultural elements onto silk products and to rely on graphic solutions alone. To represent profound cultural significance entails a seamless fusion of design, technique, style and quality in a natural way and presupposes a thorough understanding of traditional Chinese culture. Chinese culture stresses harmony, with yin and yang in balance, so its silk culture should be “engraved by Nature, like an unadorned hibiscus rising out of clear water.” Furthermore, silk itself embodies the basic features of Chinese culture, with its subtle softness and smooth character, inclusivity, beauty and flexibility. So a creative Chinese silk brand, one in which form and substance are perfectly combined, could indeed move the world again.

Hu’s ambitions meant travelling way beyond the boundaries of China, and global recognition for her Taihu Snow brand has always been a dream of hers. In 2013, she was in President Xi Jinping’s entourage on his visit to Russia, taking with her the expectations of Suzhou silk makers. Right after silk expert Qian Xiaoping heard news of the visit, she mailed Hu with the suggestion that Hu combine Suzhou Song brocade with fur to develop high-end winter garments suitable for the Russian market. 

In fact Taihu Snow has been in the Russian market since 2010. Ac-cording to Hu, the popular silk products there are those that combine opulence with a typical Chinese look. A Russian company found Taihu Snow online and the two enterprises chimed in easily to establish a Taihu Snow franchised store in St. Petersburg. The Chinese presidential visit would certainly boost the effort to make Taihu Snow a global brand and integrate it deeply in the international market.

Had it not been for the pursuit of her dream, Hu Yufang would never have swapped the stability of her teaching job for the hardships of building a business. Love is the best teacher, and inspiration comes from having a dream. 

About the Column

Suzhou-Silk City

Suzhou-Silk City is a book compiled by the Information Office of Suzhou Municipal People's Government and published by Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd. Suzhou, though associated with classical gardens, is even more the city of silk. The peaks and troughs experienced in Suzhou’s silk making and embroidery worlds are an important aspect of the enduring brilliance of China’s silk art.

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Columns Suzhou-Silk City

Suzhou-Silk City is a book compiled by the Information Office of Suzhou Municipal People's Government and published by Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd. Suzhou, though associated with classical gardens, is even more the city of silk. The peaks and troughs experienced in Suzhou’s silk making and embroidery worlds are an important aspect of the enduring brilliance of China’s silk art.

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