Zhe Peixian, 41, grew up in a small mountainous village of the Sani people near the popular tourist resort of the Stone Forest in Shilin County, southwest China's Yunnan Province.
The Sani people are a branch of the Yi ethnicity.
The second of a family with five daughters, Zhe Peixian started to work in the fields in her early teens and learned wrestling with other boys in the village, as wrestling is a favorite pastime of Sani men. In middle school, she was selected to compete in the women's wrestling contest in Kunming, the provincial capital.
She not only won the championship but also began to develop new ideas about changing the lives of herself and her own village.
"I always thought of living a new life different from my elders when I graduated from middle school and returned home," Zhe recalled.
Actions spoke louder than words and she became skilled in every aspect of farm work. While proving herself a versatile and hardworking farmhand, Zhe also won the confidence of the villagers.
At 18, she was put in charge of women's affairs in the village. She began to browse every newspaper and magazine she could find in search of information. She led the villagers to obtain and grow high-yield corn and in transforming their cooking stoves to save coal and firewood.
In the middle of the 1980s, she met a leading art teacher in the province by chance, who showed an interest in the embroidery on her Sani costume. This inspired her to organize an embroidery group in the village. "Embroidery has helped raise the economic position of local women," Zhe said.
After joining the local township administration she has gradually moved up from the director of women's affairs to chairperson of the township People's Congress.
The first problem she began to address as township women affairs' director was that 80 per cent of village women were illiterate. "In some households, the elder brother could be pursuing a postgraduate degree but his younger sister was illiterate," she recalled.
She started a literacy campaign. Efforts spanning 20 years have enabled 80 per cent of women to learn enough to help them with their farm work and social activities.
In January, she was elected as a deputy to the 10th National People's Congress. "For several generations, the Sani people did not expect their women would leave the mountains to travel to Beijing and join discussions of important national affairs," said Wan Rongguang, her husband.
Zhe knows what she is doing in Beijing. She has written a proposal about the protection of the ecological environment of the Stone Forest so that the largest lime stone forest in the world will be listed in the world register for natural heritage.
(China Daily March 5, 2003)