The Art and His­tory of Bei­jing Ap­pliqué

Ap­pliqué is pop­u­lar all across China, but Bei­jing ap­pliqué, orig­i­nated from em­broi­dery, is most fa­mous, re­flect­ing lo­cal cul­ture’s fu­sion with Western el­e­ments.

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Sun Hong­shan Edited by Roberta Raine Pho­tos by Li Xiaoyin

With dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als cut out and at­tached to cre­ate a sin­gle dec­o­ra­tion, Bei­jing ap­pliqué is a tra­di­tional hand­i­craft that goes back cen­turies.

To the north of in­ner Fucheng­men Av­enue in Xicheng Dis­trict of Bei­jing, there is a high, Ti­betanstyle pagoda. More than a thou­sand years ago, dur­ing the Liao Dy­nasty (AD 916–1125), at this same site there was a pagoda in which relics of Bud­dha, known as sarira, were en­shrined and wor­shipped. In 1271, the founder of the Yuan Dy­nasty (1271–1368), Kublai Khan (reign: 1260–1295), is­sued a de­cree to build the Tem­ple of Eter­nal Longevity and Peace on the base of the Liao- dy­nasty pagoda to wel­come relics of Shakya­muni, the founder of Bud­dhism. Dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (1368–1644), the tem­ple was called Miaoy­ing Tem­ple, the name that is still used to­day. Be­cause the en­tire body of the pagoda is white, it is also called White Pagoda Tem­ple.

Un­der the im­pact of the 1976 Tang­shan Earth­quake, the white pagoda cracked. As peo­ple re­paired it, they un­earthed many pre­cious cul­tural relics sealed dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Qian­long (1736–1795) of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911). Un­der a Bud­dhist cap in a lac­quered case, there was a sparkling kasaya (the patch­work outer vest­ment worn by a Bud­dhist monk) made of saf­fron-coloured satin bro­cade adorned with em­broi­dery.

Look­ing more closely, one can see that the Chi­nese char­ac­ter tian (field) is em­broi­dered in white on the saf­fron-coloured satin, re­fer­ring to the Bud­dhist term fu­tian, mean­ing “field of merit.” The kasaya, 3.10 me­tres long and 1.12 me­tres wide, is em­bel­lished with pe­onies, lo­tuses, plum blos­soms, pomegranate flow­ers, and chrysan­the­mums in red, yel­low, green, red and white. These satin flow­ers have em­broi­dered bor­ders, but their pis­tils and sta­mens are made of round-knot­ted em­broi­dery and are dec­o­rated with daz­zling ru­bies, sap­phires, corals and pearls. At the col­lar, the Chi­nese char­ac­ter fo (Bud­dha) is re­peated three times in reg­u­lar script; from each char­ac­ter dan­gles a coral. Look­ing even more closely, one can see that on the kasaya there are 12 sorts of flow­ers made of satin ap­pliqué, which are made in var­i­ous styles, have fully-formed shapes, har­mo­nious colours and ex­quis­ite work­man­ship. Ac­cord­ing to tex­tual re­search, this kasaya was made in the im­pe­rial palace in 1753 by the mother of Em­peror Qian­long, with the help of her maids.

This gor­geous work of em­broi­dery is the pre­de­ces­sor of Bei­jing ap­pliqué.

“Dur­ing the first so­lar term in spring, ev­ery­one makes swal­lows with coloured silk to wear...” This quo­ta­tion is from Jingchu su­ishiji (“record of the Jingchu pe­riod”), a book about the folk cus­toms of the area then called Jingchu (present-day Hubei Province), and records how coloured silk was used to make swal­lows on hats dur­ing the South­ern and North­ern Dy­nas­ties (AD 429–581). This was, in fact, the ori­gin of ap­pliqué. Dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618–907), when Bud­dhism flour­ished, monks would use a tech­nique called duil­ing (“pil­ing satin”) to dec­o­rate Bud­dhist ar­ti­cles, such as those found in Bud­dhist shrines.

Due to the in­tro­duc­tion of cot­ton from the Western Re­gions dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty (AD 960–1279), peo­ple be­gan to use cot­ton or other tex­tiles to fill in the flower petals on em­broi­dered cloth. Dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties, the tech­niques of duil­ing and tiejuan (“past­ing silk”), hav­ing al­ready been in­te­grated into em­broi­dery, pre­vailed in Bei­jing and were used to dec­o­rate ar­ti­cles for ev­ery­day use, such as fan sheaths, pouchs, sa­chets, eye­glass cases, and pouches. Dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty, of­fi­cial guilds es­tab­lished em­broi­dery work­shops and dye houses to pro­duce duil­ing to dec­o­rate the clothes of the royal fam­ily, and peo­ple used em­broi­dery with coloured cloth as a dec­o­ra­tion. Duil­ing and tiejuan there­fore evolved into the unique folk craft of Bei­jing ap­pliqué.

Be­fore the found­ing of the Repub­lic

of China (1912–1949), ap­pliqué, a vari­ant of em­broi­dery, was a kind of needle­work ex­clu­sively done by women in the im­pe­rial palace, or by women from no­ble, of­fi­cial or Manchu fam­i­lies, in or­der to cul­ti­vate men­tal and moral char­ac­ter, and had been passed on for gen­er­a­tions within fam­i­lies. In Bei­jing, work­shops of cross-stitch em­broi­dery were mainly found in the area of Huashi Street and Yongding­men­wai Street in Dongcheng Dis­trict. In the early years of the Repub­lic of China, the Ruisheng Em­broi­dery Bureau at Xuandi Tem­ple and the Li Desh­eng Em­broi­dery Work­shop at Dongheyan were quite well-known.

In the art of ap­pliqué, one at­taches in­stead of em­broi­ders, with the ar­ti­san ei­ther pil­ing up satin or past­ing silk to make del­i­cate flow­ers that have count­less shapes, are three­d­i­men­sional and multi-lay­ered.

Draw­ing the Pat­tern

Bei­jing ap­pliqué is also called tiebu (patch­work), which give a good vis­ual im­pres­sion of the art. What is patched, how­ever, is not thin silk or soft satin but a type of fab­ric ex­clu­sive to Bei­jing called feng­weisha (“phoenix-tail gauze”). This is not a real gauze but a kind of thin cot­ton cloth spe­cially pro­cessed through dye­ing and weav­ing. Its colours, shad­ing from the light to the dark, seem­ingly un­dergo a nat­u­ral change. This ef­fect of subtle, pro­gres­sive and banded change in colour makes the ap­pliqué pieces look lively, nat­u­ral, har­mo­nious and three-di­men­sional.

The pat­terns of Bei­jing ap­pliqué are not limited to flow­ers, but in fact can con­sist of many dif­fer­ent types including birds, fish, in­sects, moun­tain and wa­ter scenes, and hu­man fig­ures. Al­though the va­ri­ety is wide, ap­pliqué is also el­e­gant in its sim­plic­ity.

Hav­ing worked out a pat­tern in his mind, the ar­ti­san draws it on a piece of pa­per. This re­quires con­sid­er­able skill, for the ar­ti­san must, first of all, have pro­found knowl­edge if he wants to make the ap­pliqué more life­like. Cui Bide, who grad­u­ated from the De­part­ment of Art at Shanxi Univer­sity and learnt in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage of ap­pliqué from his fam­ily, nat­u­rally en­joys its ad­van­tages.

The lines should be drawn pre­cisely, so each stroke must be ex­act and de­mands great skill. This

is the ini­tial step. The key to pro­duc­ing a per­fect draw­ing in­volves turn­ing over the pa­per, putting it on a light ta­ble, and care­fully trac­ing the lines to make a re­verse draw­ing.

Un­like sketch­ing a usual two-di­men­sional draw­ing, be­cause of the pe­cu­liar over­lap of ap­pliqué, the ar­ti­san should clar­ify in the draw­ing the ex­act po­si­tion of ev­ery bopian (scrap of cloth), which will be cov­ered with phoenix-tail gauze, and know how to make the pieces into a co­her­ent whole so as to en­sure that the draw­ing is beau­ti­ful and life­like. The ar­ti­san should be clear in do­ing each step in the cor­rect or­der, such as press­ing the top piece onto the bot­tom piece, press­ing the outer piece to­ward the in­ner piece, and then mak­ing small cuts to cre­ate the im­age.

To guar­an­tee the ac­cu­rate po­si­tion of all the bopian, the ar­ti­san draws aux­il­iary lines and se­rial num­bers on them, which, though sim­ple, are in­dis­pen­si­ble to achieve ac­cu­racy. Cui said, “Some­times the bopian are so small that once they have been cov­ered in phoenix­tail gauze, we can't see the num­bers on them. In this case the ar­ti­san will use a water­colour brush pen to paint a ‘code' in dif­fer­ent colours, us­ing red, green, pur­ple, or yel­low dots to mark the po­si­tion; later he will match them and place them in the right po­si­tion.”

Nowa­days, a more mod­ern sci­en­tific ap­proach may be adopted in the man­ual work of do­ing ap­pliqué. When sev­eral copies need to be made, a photocopy ma­chine vastly ex­ceeds hu­man skill in ac­cu­racy. The ob­verse draw­ings are kept for com­par­i­son dur­ing the fi­nal step, and the re­verse draw­ings are used as pat­terns for plac­ing the bopian.

Cut­ting the Back­ing Pa­per

Af­ter draw­ing the pat­tern, the next step is to make the back­ing pa­per for each bopian. It is ab­so­lutely vi­tal to choose suit­able pa­per. Clean white pa­per can bring out the de­sired full ef­fect of the colour of the phoenix-tail gauze it­self. The thick­ness of pa­per is closely re­lated to the size of the pat­tern and also plays an im­por­tant role in gain­ing the com­bined ef­fect. For a big pat­tern, if the pa­per is too thin, the bopian will lack three-di­men­sional ap­peal; for a small pat­tern, if the pa­per is too thick, the bopian will look heavy and un­wieldy. “Es­pe­cially for the plumes of birds that over­lap, the back­ing pa­per used for bopian must be thin; oth­er­wise, the wings will not be light enough to fly,” said Cui.

Whether ob­verse or re­verse, heavy or light, the trick lies in the way that the ar­ti­san turns, shapes and folds the back­ing pa­per. He or she first fuses the copied pat­tern to the re­verse side of the back­ing pa­per. Then the clip­ping of the pa­per is a care­ful, ar­du­ous pro­ce­dure, which de­mands the great­est pos­si­ble ac­cu­racy. To avoid count­less pieces of back­ing pa­per from be­ing piled up like a moun­tain, the ar­ti­san should shape it as he or she clips it, as this is the most ef­fi­cient way.

Now, let's turn to the “clip­ping work,” which de­ter­mines the level of crafts­man­ship. It should be done ac­cu­rately, flex­i­bly, and co­her­ently.

The most dif­fi­cult ac­tion is to clip the back­ing pa­per, be­cause one must keep the edges neat and even. As for the sharp curves, the ar­ti­san must clip care­fully to achieve the de­sired re­sult. He must not re­peat the clip­ping ei­ther for­ward or back­ward, be­cause this will not only de­stroy the back­ing pa­per but also pro­duce “barbs.”

Flower Shap­ing

No mat­ter how elab­o­rate the draw­ing, how ac­cu­rate the shap­ing, or how smooth the clip­ping, all these pave the way for the most cru­cial step in ap­pliqué: bo­hua (flower shap­ing).

The word bao (wrap) is per­haps more ac­cu­rate than bo (shape), be­cause it in­volves, wrap­ping the back­ing pa­per with phoenix­tail gauze. The gauze is like the skin and the back­ing pa­per is like the stuff­ing. The ar­ti­san first pastes all the clipped back­ing pa­per pieces onto the phoenix-tail gauze. To fold the hem for each bopian, the ar­ti­san keeps three to five mil­lime­tres of edge clear. Af­ter fus­ing the back­ing pa­per onto the phoenix­tail gauze, the ar­ti­san makes tiny snips in cer­tain parts of the gauze. These should be as tiny as pos­si­ble to fa­cil­i­tate stick­ing the in­ner curve of the bopian to the outer one and to en­sure neat­ness as the bopian is wrapped. If the curve is gen­tle, more snips will be made; if the curve is sharp, there will be fewer snips. The out­line of the shaped flower, ac­cord­ing to the most tra­di­tional craft, should be in shapes sig­ni­fy­ing tuan

( unity), yuan (com­plete­ness), qi (uni­for­mity), or ping (peace). To­day, the shaped flower, af­ter be­ing im­proved, is ex­pected to look as nat­u­ral as pos­si­ble.

The ar­ti­san then smears glue onto the back­ing pa­per to “fold the hem.” When the glue is still wet and the phoenix-tail gauze is still mov­able, the ar­ti­san uses a nee­dle, or his thumb and fore­fin­ger if he is highly skilled, to twist and wrap the bopian so as to make the phoenix-tail gauze stretch tight. By fol­low­ing the cri­te­ria of it be­ing “even, tight, smooth, neat, and com­plete,” one can see, by hold­ing it up to the light, how the flower is shaped.

Routou’er, one of the terms in ap­pliqué art, refers to adding lin­ers such as cot­ton cloth to the bopian. This ap­proach is of­ten used to deal with hu­man faces or hands, which will look more real and nat­u­ral. If the back­ing pa­per is firm and strong, and the soft liner is mal­leable and three-di­men­sional, this com­bi­na­tion be­comes per­fect.

The work that best rep­re­sents this great craft is called “Lady Guoguo on a Spring Out­ing.” This was orig­i­nally a paint­ing by artist Zhang Xuan (AD 713–755) of the Tang Dy­nasty, and is an ap­pliqué mas­ter­piece that de­vel­oped from shap­ing flow­ers. In the orig­i­nal paint­ing, the horses with fat

rumps but slim legs are full of life. To do this in ap­pliqué, the broad rumps re­quire a soft liner, but the legs are slim. The ar­ti­san tack­les this dilemma by us­ing small sur­gi­cal scis­sors to clip the soft liner to pro­duce three­d­i­men­sional sec­tions.

Re­fin­ing the Ap­pliqué

Fengzhui, or lock-stitch­ing the hem, is con­sid­ered to be the fi­nal step of ap­pliqué. The most tra­di­tional type of ap­pliqué is usu­ally stitched onto linen or cot­ton fab­ric. What is most im­por­tant in this step is to use a special nee­dle to lock-stitch the hem of the piece so as to fix it firmly in place. To do one cen­time­tre of hem re­quires about ten stitches. Var­i­ous types of Chi­nese stitches are adopted to make a beau­ti­ful hem line, like the black-and-white line draw­ings in tra­di­tional ink-and-brush Chi­nese paint­ing.

It is also dif­fi­cult to as­sem­ble or piece to­gether the bopian. Though by now a lot of prepara­tory work has been done, the ar­ti­san still has to con­firm the or­der of bopian over and over again.

Bit by bit, layer by layer, the com­plete work emerges, but the ar­ti­san al­ways strives to per­fect all the steps. “He will not stop un­til he feels sat­is­fied, but that takes so much time and work. For in­stance, it took him seven to eight months to com­plete this three-me­tre­high piece called ‘Along the River dur­ing the Qing­ming Fes­ti­val.' But af­ter fin­ish­ing it, he was far from sat­is­fied. He felt that some­thing was wrong here or there, so it needed re­pair­ing,” said Cui's wife in tones of mi­nor com­plaint, from which, how­ever, we sensed her ad­mi­ra­tion or even praise. Smil­ing, Cui re­sponded, “I al­ways feel there is room for im­prove­ment. It can al­ways be made a lit­tle bet­ter.”

Mak­ing In­no­va­tions

“One might say that nine out of ten Western­ers' place­mats are dec­o­rated with Bei­jing ap­pliqué,” said Cui Jie. Cui, who was born in 1924, in­her­ited the craft of this in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage from his fam­ily, and is a na­tional-level mas­ter of arts and crafts.

In the 1970s and '80s, in the home of each Bei­jing fam­ily you might have found ap­pliqué on the table­cloths, sheets, or the cov­ers of TV sets, which shows how ap­pliqué was closely re­lated to the life of Bei­jing res­i­dents. In its hey­day, ap­pliqué was passed on through the Bei­jing Chousha (“cot­ton pulling”) Re­search In­sti­tute and the Bei­jing Cross Stitch Em­broi­dery Fac­tory. As the lat­ter's ap­pliqué prod­ucts were ex­ported to Europe and Amer­ica in large batches, ap­pliqué be­came a ma­jor in­dus­try for earn­ing for­eign ex­change cur­rency. Due to the de­vel­op­ment of the ma­chine in­dus­try, how­ever, tra­di­tional Bei­jing ap­pliqué has nearly van­ished, and even the most im­por­tant raw ma­te­rial, phoenix-tail gauze, has long stopped pro­duc­tion. To­day, apart from some old ap­pliqué prod­ucts in a few small stores, they can be found only in mu­se­ums.

“The Pic­ture of the Scroll of Eighty-seven Im­mor­tals” by Cui Bide, an ar­ti­san of Bei­jing ap­pliqué, is faith­ful to the orig­i­nal “The Scroll of Eighty-seven Im­mor­tals” by the Tang­dy­nasty painter Wu Daozi (c. AD 680–760), and dis­plays un­usual crafts­man­ship by giv­ing special promi­nence to 17 fig­ures.

“Nail head and mouse tail” is one of the paint­ing tech­niques used for draw­ing wrin­kles on the clothes of an­cient Chi­nese fig­ures. Now, if you look care­fully at “The Pic­ture of the Scroll of Eighty-seven Im­mor­tals,” you will find that the wrin­kles of clothes, against the back­drop of black card­board, are as vivid as if they were drawn with a magic pen. How­ever, they were not drawn but pasted, piece by piece, with bopian.

In the past, ap­pliqué was wash­able and more prac­ti­cal; to­day, it has be­come a type of art and em­pha­sis is placed more on its beauty and dec­o­ra­tive uses. Ar­ti­sans have dis­carded lock-stitch­ing, and have only pre­served the dui (pil­ing) and tie (past­ing) tech­niques of ap­pliqué. This saves time and labour be­cause wash­ing and iron­ing are no longer nec­es­sary. In ad­di­tion, ar­ti­sans use satin that is lighter, thin­ner, and shinier, and dye it ac­cord­ing to their needs; there­fore, they are able to make their work more en­joy­able, ow­ing to its closer sim­i­lar­ity to draw­ing. Nowa­days, ap­pliqué has emerged from a co­coon and has flown like a but­ter­fly into the an­nals of Chi­nese arts and crafts.

Speak­ing of pass­ing down the art of ap­pliqué, Cui Bide said, “To learn ap­pliqué, an ar­ti­san should have some knowl­edge of fine arts, an eye for beauty, and, more im­por­tantly, the for­ti­tude to with­stand soli­tude. It's not re­al­is­tic to make money through ap­pliqué. Now I only hope I can meet the right per­son to pass down this craft to.”

To him, ap­pliqué is a process of cul­ti­vat­ing his moral char­ac­ter, not some­thing that can turn a quick profit. Ap­proach­ing old age, Cui Bide still silently ad­heres to his faith.

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