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.
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.”
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.”
“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.