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Small wooden toys realize big dreams of prosperity

By MA ZHENHUAN in Hangzhou| China Daily| Updated: July 14, 2022 L M S

Arriving in Yunhe, a small county in Lishui city, Zhejiang province, you can't help but wonder if you've just stepped into a dream-like painting, with the Oujiang River winding through its misty mountains, hills and valleys.

Literally meaning "peaceful clouds", Yunhe is famed for its breathtaking scenery, in particular its age-old rice terraces, which have been home to farmers since the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the county makes regular appearances on various lists of recommended places to visit in China.

But there is more than natural beauty in Yunhe. It is also a treasure trove of wooden toys.

Wooden toy-themed cultural and amusement parks line the main roads, shops and stores selling wooden toys are everywhere, children play with locally made toys and board games in kindergarten as part of preschool education, hotels and homestays are often featured with wooden toys, and even street lamps, bus stops and the county's highway tollgates are built in the shape of wooden toys and castles.

Known as the "Hometown of China's Wooden Toys", Yunhe boasts 1,093 manufacturers, producing thousands upon thousands of wooden play things every year. In fact, 56 percent of China's wooden toys and 40 percent of the world's are made in Yunhe. These toys are exported to 76 countries and regions including the United States and Europe.

For a place with a population of a little over 130,000, that is no small feat. And the accomplishment is said to rest largely on a man from the village of Chishi.

"My grandfather, who was then 44 years old, went to Shanghai in 1972 in search of a market for wooden toys, and when he returned, he brought back several samples," said He Bin, head of Zhejiang Hexin Toys and who is also 44 years old, recounting the time his grandfather He Shouzhen earned Yunhe's first export order.

After a year and a half of repeated trials in his simple workshop, He Shouzhen successfully produced a batch of spinning tops, castanets and yo-yos, which were then sold through a trading company in Shanghai to Japan for a total of 4,000 yuan ($570).

Encouraged by his success, farmers, first from his village and then from neighboring villages, and people around the area turned to making wooden toys, a local craft that was born in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Within eight years of the first order, the total value of Yunhe's wooden toy production exceeded 1 million yuan, riding the first waves of China's reform and opening-up. By the year 2000, the industry was worth 430 million yuan.

Last year, Yunhe's wooden toys generated revenue of 9.19 billion yuan, and over 31,000 people-roughly a quarter of its population-were employed in the county's manufacturing companies.

From a mountainous village in Yunhe, Que Weiping moved to the urban area in 2007, initially transporting toys. In 2010, when Que became familiar with the design, production and sales, among other processes, of wooden toys, he decided to establish his own company.

"At that time, I was very sanguine about the wooden toy market, so with my partner I borrowed 20,000 yuan as the startup fund, rented a space of no more than 200 square meters, and got down to work," recalled Que.

After three years of hard work, Que created his own brand and later put his products online. Now, he leads a team of some 500 employees and his company makes 1,000-odd products, with annual sales revenue of 200 million yuan.

"In Yunhe, my story is the rule rather than the exception," said Que, as many more like him are working hard to pursue a better life and realize their dream of prosperity through making small wooden toys.