An exploration of women’s engagement and participation in Chinese makerspaces

Artist and engineer Sophie Huckfield examines the role of women in makerspaces in Chengdu and Xi’an

WoodGarden — A wood workshop in Chengdu with a gender-balanced workshop | Photo: Sophie Huckfield

Many of the spaces we visited throughout the Living Research trip were headed by women.

Ambitious, intelligent, confident, business minded women. Many of the small scale workshops favoured a gender balance and young women occupied the top roles in these companies. Women’s involvement was clear and in many respects the Maker Movement had opened up a wider spectrum of making for women.

Early on in the trip, we visited Southwest Jiaotong University Makerspace in Chengdu. The space housed its own Makerspaces and basic workshops, with a mix of materials and processes available for students to learn, from woodwork to 3D printing. Women make up 30% of the cohort of Engineering students at the University. In Britain, fewer than 9% of professional engineers are women — a figure that is among the worst globally and which has not increased in the past decade.” (Alexandra Topping, Guardian). Currently 15.1% of UK engineering undergraduates (from 2017) are women (Statistics on Women in Engineering, WESStatistics, Dr Sarah Peers, 2018).

After conversing with 25 year old Lai Xiao one of the previous female engineering students, we spoke about how joining the maker space had impacted upon her and her engagement with making. Being part of a makerspace had totally changed her perceptions on working with your hands. During her time in the Makerspace she build a robot arm- with this type of learning massively influencing her way of thinking. She was able to work collaboratively with others, enabling her to see the value in manual work and to apply these skills across other fields. There are preconceptions in China around the idea of female engineers and technologist and her initial perceptions were similar to those mirrored globally:

“I was afraid as a girl to work with my hands…Spaces like this can broaden your horizons”

She went on to Major in Philosophy — specifically in the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence- this was directly influenced by her time at the makerspace, evolving her understanding that the hand and the head are very much connected entities.

Throughout our visit we had the opportunity to meet women who had established or taken over makerspaces and companies, helping them to flourish and provide strong role models for women. This was most apparent in the area of Chengdu, which is synonymous culturally with empowered women: “Chengdu Girls” are a force to be reckoned with, known to be strong willed and confident. Our week in Chengdu lived up to this perception and many of the spaces we visited where either headed by women or had women actively engaged in the management of makerspaces and companies. The women we met worked across sectors, they were confident, ambitious and unafraid to speak their minds.

Entrance of Southwest Jiaotong University Makerspace | Photo: Sophie Huckfield

We met Jennifer Yuan, who established and runs a commercial craft studio “Maker Circle” at Chengdu’s West Village. Maker Circle provides woodworking, ceramics, textiles and photography services. Jennifer is trained as a ceramicist and has her own creative practice, alongside providing opportunities for local creatives. She said the studio is a place for families to learn making skills, providing a range of evening classes. The customers have the opportunity to design and make things themselves, learning craft skills and having design and making support from the makers based at the studio. Due to the success of the company the Chinese government has invited and funded the company to take part in a craft fair in South Korea.

Jennifer has a studio for her own creative practice as a ceramicist based at the company, alongside 30 other makers. Jennifer’s space not only provided a living for crafts people, but also gave them the space to develop their own creative practice, the space acts as a community for artists to make and collaborate. Alongside engaging the local community in making, through offering evening classes to learn skills such as throwing and glazing. The name ‘Maker Circle’ significance is to bring like-minded people together, as both a business space but also a community to relax and hang out:

“Because we love this, the same minds, and so we call this the circle”.

Maker Circle run by Jennifer Yuan based in the West Village Complex in Chengdu | Photo: Sophie Huckfield

Jennifer is a very socially outgoing and interesting person. Using the social media application Wechat she was connected to thousands of craftspeople across China (5000 by her estimate) across a number of disciplines from ceramic, wood, metal etc. Craft people would use the network to share videos and images of their practice. Using this network she would call on people when work was available- providing them with opportunities if their skills were required — If you ask her about a specific craft, she would know someone across China who can make it. She uses Wechat as a resource composed of informed networks, to establish connections within the maker community.

Jennifer’s success had been celebrated, she showed us an event for Chinese Mother’s in business which actively celebrates the success of working mothers in China. Their contribution and ambition had not been overlooked and being a mother had not provided a barrier to her success. Jennifer is an example of a self starter who aims to cultivate a creative community, not only in Chengdu but across China. Maker Circle gives opportunities for experienced craftspeople and hobbyists alike- encouraging them to see the value in making, craft and creativity. Her company, acted as a community more than anything, blurring the lines between commercial business venture and community space. It was Jennifer’s passion for making which shone through. The hard work she had put into nurturing a stable ecosystem is providing a living for craftspeople and cultivating a generation of future makers.

An artist and community member making a tea pot at Maker Circle | Photo: Marc Barto

This ethos and ambition was mirrored in many other spaces we visited from Jijun Bamboo Weaving Plant in rural Chengdu, a factory inherited by Mai, a skilled craftsperson in her own right. Mai’s factory showed the still thriving cottage industry of China, the host of largely female workers were all masters of their material. They patiently demonstrated and taught us different weaving techniques the afternoon we spent there, their quick work hardened hands conveying obvious years of mastery. All throughout our conversations, Mai’s hands would be running unconsciously through strands of bamboo, effortlessly constructing bamboo oddities from rings to bamboo motifs of animals. It was inspiring to be amongst women who were skilled crafts people. China’s craft heritage is a treasure trove of diversity and skill and China is beginning to acknowledge this, supporting the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage initiative, which aims to support and celebrate traditional arts and crafts. The realm of craft, from personal experience, can have the power to re-contextualise how women can be inducted into the engineering sector, with both craft and engineering encompassing similar skill sets and mentalities. I believe a strategy for creating more inclusive and innovative makerspaces, especially in China whose focus is on electronics and STEM, is through diversifying the users. If China is able to embrace and incorporate crafts and art into its makerspaces it can nurture interdisciplinary learning and ideas- which will lead to alternative modes of action and problem solving.

Mai, owner of Jijun Bamboo Weaving Plant in Chengdu | Photo: Steve Coombs

Judy from Allab was also an inspirational person to meet. She co-founded Allab a socially engaged architecture practice based in Chengdu. They deliver a range of projects and events for the local community, encouraging local discourses around architecture, design and the arts. Judy was keen to provide a platform for women and specifically commented upon women’s position in Chinese society-

“There remains a traditional Chinese preference for boys, for example at a wedding reception, guests will send out a wish to the new couple of having a son rather than a daughter. I used to work in the traditional media for many years so understood the power of the voice, I had a western education, studying in the US — I have a strong sense of responsibility to represent women and to strive for the right”.

She ran an event which celebrated Chengdu women and Allab continues to deliver events which champion all types of communities not traditionally represented by China culturally.

In Xi’an we met a variety of women leading spaces, including the first Interaction Design course at the Xi’an Fine Art Academy. This course was headed by Professor Yang, she had previously studied in the US at The Rhode Island School of Design. Upon her return she established the course — unique to China — with the first cohort graduating in 2018, the speculative and innovative design course had a mix of imaginative projects, with students experimentally applying cutting edge technologies to various creative contexts, providing narratives to a diverse range of topics from climate change to the occult. The graduating year group consisting of 6 female and 9 male students, whilst the cohort was small, the range of projects was varied. The students were clearly pushed to think outside the box, it was one of the first spaces we visited where I truly saw creative innovation and ideas, many projects married together Chinese culture with their superior technology skills and knowledge. I believe this course will produce a range of practitioners who will go on to develop projects and businesses which will playfully push the envelope of Chinese arts and culture. It is especially inspiring to see that it was initiated and developed by the course tutor on her return to China, who wants to advocate diversity within the Chinese art scene. Whilst she acknowledged that there were certain lines students are not allowed to cross politically, she emphasized that students were encouraged to play with the proverbial ‘line’.

Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts: an Interaction Design student presents one of her projects | Photo: Steve Coombs

Visiting the range of spaces and meeting such inspirational women, was impressive, however, these were a product of many factors, most notably privilege. I wanted to research and investigate further into how inclusive makerspaces are, both in China and the UK. In my next blog I will delve deeper into the women’s rights in China and how the UK tackles diversity in its makerspaces.

The Living Research programme is a partnership between the British Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

In China, the British Council has partnered with MakerNet to co-develop the project in Chengdu and Xi’an.

Living Research 2018

A cross-disciplinary research programme that investigates the local maker ecosystems of Chengdu and Xi'an in China

British Council Creative Economy

Written by

British Council Creative Economy team. We work with artists, entrepreneurs, and creative communities globally to tackle today’s cultural and social challenges.

Living Research 2018

A cross-disciplinary research programme that investigates the local maker ecosystems of Chengdu and Xi'an in China