Li Hongxiu, 64, shows exhibits in her private huerjia-themed museum in Altay, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, on March 1, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]
Having spent the last 30 years researching her family history, 64-year-old Li Hongxiu is almost an anthropologist.
Born in Qinghai province in Northwest China, Li moved to Altay in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region to marry her husband, Cao Zhongwei, in the 1970s. That was when she started to develop a keen interest in a special group of people called huerjia, meaning old local families in Chinese. Li eventually established a museum to commemorate them.
"My husband's grandfather is a descendant of huerjia. He told me many stories of the families, how they came here and not only survived but thrived," she said.
Huerjia, originally a Kazak word, specifically refers to about 40 families of Han ethnicity who settled at the foot of the Altay Mountains in the mid-19th century.
Researchers believe these migrants were likely to have been banished to the frontier after the peasant uprisings during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). They left their hometowns in the provinces of Gansu, Shanxi and Shaanxi, and now they have more than 2,000 descendants, who live mainly in the township of Hongdun.
"Before huerjia came, very few people lived here. Herders stopped and passed by; there was no permanent settlement," Li said.
Her grandfather-in-law and other elderly people recounted stories of how herdsmen learned to farm from the settlers, and how the farmers bought sheep and cattle and hired herders to graze them.
There was a time when the settlement was a bustling center of commerce－before bandits started to raid the area－but it started to fade in the first half of the 20th century, she said.
"I was in my early 20s when I got married, and the huerjia stories intrigued me, so I started to talk with elderly people like my grandfather-in-law, and wrote down what they told me," she said.
As Li continued her research, she discovered patterns. Most of the huerjia families consist of members from at least three ethnic groups and speak two languages or more. Like her grandfather-in-law, most families adopted orphans.
The Cao family consists of eight ethnic groups－Han, Kazak, Uygur, Hui, Mongolian, Xibe, Russian and Korean. Different languages and customs coexist. Li speaks fluent Mandarin and Kazak.
To better preserve the history of migration, survival and integration, Li started collecting exhibits for her private huerjia-themed museum in 2012. Now, the museum, around 200 square meters, has a wide range of exhibits, including horse saddles, basins for washing gold, spinning wheels, plows and farm implements.
"I had a pair of saddle irons, and my children wanted to sell them, but I brought them to the museum. The memory of the past should be preserved," she said.
Li works as both curator and docent of the museum. "She has spent a lot of time on this. Now she is an expert," her husband said.
Last year, the museum received 10,000 visitors. The local government supported her with 200,000 yuan ($30,000) for a new exhibition hall.
"Li's efforts are helping us make local history known to more people," said Ziyidash, a government employee in Hongdun.
To raise money for the museum, Li and her neighbors started to offer guesthouses to visitors and sell them a variety of ethnic delicacies－Kazak naren noodles, Uygur barbecue and Hui deep-fried dough.
"Good hearts, helping and sharing－that's how our ancestors survived. Their wisdom will be cherished and carried forward," Li said.