Justine Zhang’s (张婷) workshop is well hidden. In the middle of downtown Jishou, the bustling capital of an autonomous minority prefecture in western Hunan, China, her converted garage-door storage space is tucked away in a shaded side alley. Set back from the chattering masses of vendors and pedestrians, its presence barely registers from the street.
Inside, the honks and shouts of the outside lowered to a murmur, Zhang’s cat 猫猫(MaoMao, cat) dozes in his window frame. A fish putters around his wall-mounted bowl, and wood rosaries coil in lighted cases. Zhang sands, polishes, drills and threads while a steady stream of friends, neighbors and clients filters through. They bring news and help with the simpler tasks. Zhang socializes actively, but her hands rarely pause in their work.
When Zhang was learning to make rosaries, the work was just starting to move away from artisan trade and toward mass manufacturing. Today almost all wood jewelry sold on the street is sweatshop work, low-wage and low-quality. When she talks about the business, Zhang makes it clear that this isn’t just an income. “I want to show people that it’s possible to make this art by hand and still earn a living, a good living,” she says. Today her business yields ~6,000 yuan/month ($12,000/year), a comfortable living for an average Jishou family.
Zhang works with the wood and seeds of trees from as far away as India, but her more lucrative work comes from rarer Chinese woods like 红豆杉（Chinese Yew) and 金丝楠木 (Nanmu, a dark gold hardwood from southwest China). Traditional Chinese culture puts a high price on rare wildlife. Traditional medicine has brought species like the Siberian tiger and the Sumatran rhinoceros to the brink of extinction, and serving rare animals at business dinners can be a way of showing respect and securing relationships.
The situation is no different for these rare woods. The rosaries are sometimes used for religious purposes, but mostly in place of jewelry. Rare, expensive woods can comport status just like expensive jewels. Both Nanmu and Chinese Yew are listed as endangered and declining, but far from being an obstacle, the classification is a boon. Business is booming as incomes rise and consumer desire for luxury goods grows. With the rise of yew as the source of a synthetic predecessor of a chemotherapy drug, Zhang says, yew bracelets are also said to ward off cancer.
Like many of the environmental problems facing China, the slow decline of Nanmu and Yew trees is shrouded by a lack of information. IUCN’s redlist entries tell us that these species’ numbers are waning due to overcutting, but the conservation of wild spaces is not typically seen as a priority by the Chinese government and conservation studies are hard to come by.
Zhang dismisses any negative environmental impact of her work. With a shine of pride, she tells me she never uses chemical solutions to clean or finish her beads, and that she sources materials from people who have come upon the endangered trees naturally fallen. “I could not destroy natural things, I love them too much,” she says. But she also questions the honesty of the traders she deals with. “You have to have a good eye,” she says, “it’s easy to end up with common wood at rare wood prices.”
Zhang sees her work as a way of showcasing the natural beauty of her materials. She says she hopes that by showing people the inherent beauty of these trees, she can help them learn to treasure the natural world. Moreover, handmade rosaries employ a fraction of the wood used in furniture or construction, the traditional uses of Nanmu, or medicine, the most common use of Chinese Yew.
Zhang’s dealings with the natural world mirror imbalances in a greater system of culture, politics and economics. In a consumerist development model, she is a model citizen, pulling herself up by her bootstraps, growing the local economy with quality goods, and even working on plans to spread her business internationally. But even for someone who depends on and cares deeply about the natural world, Zhang can exhibit an alarming pragmatism. In terms of her business, she asserts,“It’s okay if we run out of Nanmu and Yew. Once they’re gone, we can move to other more common high quality woods.” On our present path, Zhang’s rosaries will someday be relics of another species brought low by humans.