Ex­quis­ite Bei­jing Em­broi­dery

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Niu Huizai Edited by Justin Davis Pho­tos by Chang Xu, Zhao Meng

Bei­jing em­broi­dery, known as im­pe­rial em­broi­dery, is a tra­di­tional type of Chi­nese em­broi­dery and gen­er­ally refers to em­broi­dered works from Bei­jing that are done with Bei­jing style. It is one of the “Eight Palace Hand­i­crafts.”

The Bei­jing Mu­seum of Fine Work­man­ship is home to large num­bers of in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage projects, in­clud­ing Bei­jing em­broi­dery.

On Novem­ber 11, 2014, Bei­jing em­broi­dery was in­cluded into the fourth batch of Na­tional-level In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage, as ap­proved by the State Coun­cil. This work­man­ship has a his­tory of over 200 years.

En­ter­ing the Bei­jing em­broi­dery work­shop, one will see many ex­am­ples of exquisitely em­broi­dered works. Whether a cheongsam, Chi­nese-style top­coat, a bed cur­tain or even small ac­ces­sories, one will find em­broi­dered pat­terns with aus­pi­cious im­pli­ca­tions. De­spite its small area of about 20 square me­tres, this work­shop is a trea­sure trove of em­broi­dered Bei­jing hand­i­crafts. Yao Fuy­ing, a fourth­gen­er­a­tion de­scen­dent of Bei­jing em­broi­dery, dis­plays his own em­broi­dered works, amaz­ing vis­i­tors with their level of lux­ury and ex­quis­ite qual­ity.

Ori­gin

Bei­jing em­broi­dery, also known as im­pe­rial em­broi­dery, is a tra­di­tional type of Chi­nese em­broi­dery and gen­er­ally refers to em­broi­dered works from Bei­jing and done with Bei­jing style. Bei­jing em­broi­dery is one of the “Eight Palace Hand­i­crafts.” Chi­nese cloi­sonné enamel and ivory carv­ings are some of the oth­ers.

Bei­jing em­broi­dery can be traced back to the Tang Dy­nasty. Bei­jing em­broi­dery was mainly used to dec­o­rate ap­parel for em­per­ors and

no­bil­ity. Bei­jing em­broi­dery be­gan to flour­ish dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties. There was a spe­cial agency known as the Em­broi­dery Bureau in the royal palace of the Qing Dy­nasty, which hired highly-skilled em­broi­der­ers that pro­duced em­broi­dery ex­quis­ite in both ma­te­rial and style. Bei­jing em­broi­dery used to be an of­fer­ing to the court. It is usu­ally made of the best satin stitched with threads of nat­u­ral silk. The end prod­uct is light, soft and com­fort­able.

Yao Fuy­ing ex­plained some of the cul­tural im­pli­ca­tions be­hind Bei­jing em­broi­dery: “Ev­ery fig­ure in Bei­jing em­broi­dery must have a spe­cific mean­ing, which must be aus­pi­cious. Be­hind ev­ery fine piece of Bei­jing em­broi­dery, Chi­nese cul­ture can be found.” Yao started learn­ing how to make Bei­jing em­broi­dery in his teens. Dur­ing the past two years, Yao has let go of this valu­able hand­i­craft for health rea­sons, as he is al­ready in his 70s. The ma­jor­ity of Bei­jing em­broi­dery works fea­ture aus­pi­cious de­signs, em­body­ing the out­looks of the crafts­men and their good wishes via sym­bol­ism, al­le­gory and ho­mo­phone.

At the en­trance of Yao Fuy­ing's work­shop, one will see two bright red framed em­broi­dered works. These are known as “Hun­dreds of Sons Of­fer­ing Birth­day Wishes” and “The Num­ber One Scholar.” In the “Hun­dreds of Sons Of­fer­ing Birth­day Wishes,” young men are com­ing from many di­rec­tions to wish the God of Longevity a happy birth­day, who is smil­ing and has longevity peaches in his hand. The “Hun­dreds of Sons,” “The God of Longevity” and “Longevity Peaches” el­e­ments all have sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance. More sons means more bless­ings and bet­ter longevity.

Yao ex­plained: “Bei­jing em­broi­ders em­pha­sise last­ing ap­peal and im­plied mean­ings. The charm of Bei­jing em­broi­dery is rather in­ter­est­ing in many ways.”

Cre­at­ing Pat­terns for the Bot­tom Area

Ev­ery piece of Bei­jing em­broi­dery is hand­crafted, no mat­ter how big or how small. This is still true to­day, de­spite the in­creased lev­els of mech­a­ni­sa­tion and au­to­ma­tion in the world. It is an im­por­tant fea­ture of Bei­jing em­broi­dery.

It takes a long time to com­plete a piece of Bei­jing em­broi­dery, and the process is very com­pli­cated.

“To pro­duce a piece of Bei­jing em­broi­dery, primer ma­te­rial, silk thread, em­broi­dery nee­dles, scis­sors and em­broi­dery frames are re­quired. Be­fore one em­broi­ders a silk cloth, one must be well- pre­pared. As the pat­terns that are used are rather com­pli­cated, it is indispensable to draft some­thing in ad­vance. Draft­ing means draw­ing the ba­sis of an em­broi­dery pat­tern. Since the primer ma­te­rial is soft fab­ric, it creases eas­ily and can lose its shape. There­fore, the primer ma­te­rial should be ironed flat and fixed with nee­dles through its cor­ners on a work­table to en­sure that it is flat and pre­vent any in­ac­cu­ra­cies in the next step of draft brush­ing.

Once primer ma­te­rial is pre­pared, one can start draw­ing lines. The draft­ing of lines is done on a piece of pa­per of suf­fi­cient size, and the process needs to be done in one go. This re­quires em­broi­der­ers like Yao Fuy­ing to have fine paint­ing skills and be able to draw all kinds of com­pli­cated pat­terns. Once these lines are com­pleted, the primer ma­te­rial is covered with a layer of veg­etable pa­per. A fine em­broi­dery nee­dle is used to densely prick small holes along the con­tour of the draft to form a new con­tour of holes on the veg­etable pa­per. Af­ter this step, one will be­gin the stage of draft brush­ing unique to Bei­jing em­broi­dery.

Draft brush­ing in­volves leav­ing the con­tour of the pat­tern on the primer ma­te­rial by brush­ing. Specif­i­cally, a sponge that is hold­ing volatile liq­uid such as ga­so­line is dipped in lime pow­der and gently brushed over the holes with even force. In this way, the lime pow­der will meet the primer ma­te­rial through the holes. Marks from the lime pow­der will re­main, thus form­ing the con­tour of the pat­tern on the primer ma­te­rial. If the primer ma­te­rial is not ironed flat or fixed firmly and creases ap­pear, the con­tour of the pat­tern may be wrong dur­ing the draft brush­ing, and even­tu­ally the whole piece of em­broi­dery will be­come de­fec­tive. This is why one must iron the primer ma­te­rial.

The pat­tern is then printed on the primer ma­te­rial. Sub­se­quently, the primer ma­te­rial is stretched over the em­broi­dery frame to make it flat. This step is known as dec­o­ra­tion stretch­ing in the in­dus­try. This

process of­ten ap­pears on cam­era in cos­tumed dra­mas. When some­one is em­broi­der­ing, silk is stretched on a cir­cu­lar stretcher to flat­ten it. This method is used in Bei­jing em­broi­dery. The primer ma­te­rial printed with the pat­tern is sewn on both sides of the em­broi­dery frame and un­folded; then both ends of the em­broi­dery frame are punched to al­low the four sides of the primer ma­te­rial to be sup­ported with a shelf, mak­ing them flat and tight enough for em­broi­dery. When this step is done, the ropes on both sides of the frame should be bun­dled tightly to fix both ends. This is known as “buck­ling the ropes.” This process should be re­peated so that the primer ma­te­rial is com­pletely fixed on the frame.

In or­der to en­sure the em­broi­dered sur­face has been stretched tight enough for em­broi­dery, af­ter the ini­tial stretch­ing is done, one needs to flip back the em­broi­dery frame, gently rub the em­broi­dered sur­face to test its tight­ness and fix it if needed. The prepara­tory work for Bei­jing em­broi­dery is now done.

Pre­par­ing Thread

Once the em­broi­dery sur­face is stretched, the next step is pre­par­ing em­broi­dery thread.

Un­doubt­edly, as a spe­cial of­fer­ing to the royal fam­ily in an­cient times, Bei­jing em­broi­dery is made of luxurious ma­te­ri­als. The use of pre­cious ma­te­ri­als such as gold, sil­ver, pearls and pea­cock feathers is not un­com­mon. Em­broi­dery thread is nat­u­rally dainty. “In the past, the pat­terns on em­per­ors' robes were all em­broi­dered with real gold and sil­ver.” When re­fer­ring to the his­tory of Bei­jing em­broi­dery, Yao could not help feel­ing proud. To­day, the glory of this spe­cial of­fer­ing to the royal fam­ily is a by­gone mem­ory, and there are re­place­ments for ex­pen­sive and rare ma­te­ri­als. Thread is pas­tel- and enamel-coloured, and var­i­ous types are used. In ad­di­tion to silk thread, gold and sil­ver are still some­times used.

To make a vivid piece of Bei­jing em­broi­dery, one has to se­lect thread colours very care­fully. Yao elab­o­rated: “You need to think very clearly about which colour should be used in which area when mak­ing a cer­tain pat­tern. You rack your brain while do­ing the em­broi­dery.” It is nec­es­sary to take into ac­count the pat­tern it­self and the fea­tures of the colours, and se­lect thread with dif­fer­ent shades and tem­per­a­tures. Em­broi­dery can be nat­u­rally pre­sented in both warm and cold col­ors, with a lay­ered ef­fect, by us­ing var­ied colours and hues. Yao is fa­mil­iar with ev­ery tra­di­tion of this palace craft, as his fam­ily has been do­ing this kind of work for four gen­er­a­tions now. “Colours can­not be mis­matched. Each colour has its own char­ac­ter. ‘Black rep­re­sents mys­tery, yel­low rep­re­sents power, red is for hap­pi­ness and blue is for no­bil­ity.' If the rep­re­sen­ta­tive mean­ing is wrong, one could be be­headed in an­cient times.”

When em­broi­dery thread is ready, the next step is to split the thread. This is also unique to Bei­jing em­broi­dery as com­pared with other em­broi­dery. To split the thread, as the name sug­gests, is to split the thread into floss. Af­ter this process, ex­tremely short fi­bres are pro­duced. Split floss re­tains the colour of the orig­i­nal thread but also im­proves the smooth­ness and tex­ture of the em­broi­dered sur­face. This can be wit­nessed in Yao's em­broi­dery pieces. When em­broi­dery is ob­served in a well-lit area, the sur­face of each el­e­ment from flowers to birds ap­pears bright and ra­di­ant. When the light­ing changes, the fi­bres re­act and pro­duce dif­fer­ent lus­tres, giv­ing the em­broi­dery a lay­ered feel­ing. For ex­am­ple, petals may have a scar­letred-pink-light pink tran­si­tion from near to far. Even on a flat sur­face, a spe­cial, three- di­men­sional ef­fect can be seen.

When the thread is split and colour match­ing has been de­cided upon, one can be­gin em­broi­der­ing with a nee­dle. As a ne­ces­sity for mak­ing Bei­jing em­broi­dery, the “ap­pear­ance rate” of an em­broi­dery nee­dle is quite high dur­ing the process. There is an iron box on Yao's work­table with a bag of em­broi­dery nee­dles. Tiny em­broi­dery nee­dles are wrapped in­side un­der a layer of white pa­per. Yao ex­plained: “Em­broi­dery nee­dles are di­vided into many grades. The No. 12 nee­dle com­monly used for ‘ Bei­jing em­broi­dery' is two cen­time­tres long and slightly thicker than a thread of hair. It is rather hard for an or­di­nary

per­son to hold it, let alone work with it. It is rather eye- strain­ing to put floss or gold and sil­ver thread through the pin­holes of these kinds of nee­dles.” Yao put on his glasses, pinched a thin em­broi­dery nee­dle with his left thumb and in­dex finger, and picked up a soft and spindly piece of floss in his right hand. He tried to thread the nee­dle but failed. He was a lit­tle sad, men­tion­ing, “I have used this kind of nee­dle for decades. Now my eyes are rather bad, and I can't even thread a nee­dle.”

Com­plet­ing the Work

Bei­jing em­broi­dery em­pha­sises eight con­cepts: flat, light, neat, rhyme, har­mony, smooth, fine and dense. It can be a very time-con­sum­ing process to make a fin­ished work.

It can take hun­dreds of stitches to em­broi­der a petal and tens of thou­sands of stitches to em­broi­der a palm-sized flower.

Stitch­ing can be very com­pli­cated. Ac­cord­ing to Yao, “Begin­ners will usu­ally make a lot of mis­takes, and their first 30 prod­ucts are usu­ally de­fec­tive.” This is an­other demon­stra­tion of the dif­fi­culty of mak­ing Bei­jing em­broi­dery.

Bei­jing em­broi­dery is di­vided into four stitch­ing tech­niques: Coiled gold em­broi­dery, cir­cu­lar gold em­broi­dery, flat em­broi­dery and Chi­nese knot em­broi­dery. Coiled gold em­broi­dery is unique to Bei­jing em­broi­dery and is gen­er­ally re­garded as its most rep­re­sen­ta­tive tech­nique. It is a very com­pli­cated method. Its em­broi­dery threads are made of twisted pieces of gold foil. They are dou­ble-stranded threads of gold and sil­ver fil­i­grees, which are closely and neatly ar­ranged along the con­tours of the pat­terns. Then, a short nee­dle is used on the em­broi­dery sur­face un­til the gold and sil­ver threads are coiled over the en­tire pat­tern. This is why this tech­nique is called coiled gold em­broi­dery. The gold and sil­ver fil­i­grees must be con­tin­u­ous to the end, which means the thread should not break dur­ing the em­broi­der­ing process. Coiled gold em­broi­dery dis­plays royal mag­nif­i­cence in ev­ery way, fully em­body­ing the exquisite­ness and el­e­gance of court-re­lated aes­thet­ics. It takes a lot of prac­tice over many years to en­sure that each pat­tern, be it a cir­cle or a tri­an­gle, is fully ex­pressed when us­ing this tech­nique.

Cir­cu­lar gold em­broi­dery also uses gold and sil­ver thread. How­ever, cir­cu­lar gold em­broi­dery is only used for cre­at­ing the con­tours of the full pat­tern. The in­ner stitch­ing is de­cided by the em­broi­derer based on his or her pref­er­ence. Whether it is coiled or cir­cu­lar gold em­broi­dery, the em­broi­derer is re­quired to es­ti­mate how long a piece of gold and sil­ver thread is needed to com­plete an en­tire pat­tern. If the thread breaks or is changed dur­ing the em­broi­der­ing process, the work it­self will be con­sid­ered to be ru­ined.

Com­pared with coiled gold em­broi­dery and cir­cu­lar gold em­broi­dery, flat em­broi­dery is a rel­a­tively easy-to-use tech­nique. This method is one of the most widely-used in Bei­jing em­broi­dery. It is also used in many other types of em­broi­dery. Flat em­broi­dery em­pha­sises neat and uni­form stitch­ing. Dense, flat stitch­ing is ap­plied to the primer ma­te­rial. There is usu­ally only one layer. Oc­ca­sion­ally, knot stitches or back stitches will be added to make the pat­terns more solid. These ar­eas can be very small, such as de­pic­tions of lo­tus roots or leaf veins.

Knot em­broi­dery in­volved in flat em­broi­dery is con­sid­ered to be evolved from the lock em­broi­dery tech­nique from an­cient times, also known as knot tech­nique. Knot stitches give the em­broi­dery a sense of power and so­lid­ity. It in­volves cre­at­ing lumps of knot­ted floss. The knots are threaded from the bot­tom of the primer ma­te­rial and twisted around the pat­tern sev­eral times. Af­ter that, the nee­dle is threaded again, from top to bot­tom, through the primer ma­te­rial. A small knot will ap­pear. The knots add peaks to the pat­terns. Some­times this tech­nique is com­bined with back stitches to high­light the main pat­tern and make a greater sense of so­lid­ity. A lot of tech­ni­cal abil­ity is needed for knot em­broi­dery. Em­broi­der­ers need to ap­ply the same force ev­ery time they hit the knots. They must be aware of the po­si­tion of the knit stitches and en­sure that sim­i­lar force is used be­tween knit stitches and purl stitches. Heav­ier force will lead to a larger knot, and a lighter force will lead to a smaller knot. It takes a lot of skill to make knots that are even, tight, full, of equal size and height and ar­ranged neatly and tightly to make works that are full of charm. There are at least 150 knots per square cen­time­tre when this tech­nique is used. Even a very skilled em­broi­derer can only make a patch of knots about the size of a palm. The knots must be both del­i­cate and nat­u­ral in colour tran­si­tion to fully em­body the unique charm of knot em­broi­dery.

Af­ter the iron­ing of the primer ma­te­rial, the stretch­ing of the primer ma­te­rial, the se­lec­tion and split­ting of em­broi­dery thread and the elab­o­rate em­broi­der­ing it­self, a piece of fin­ished Bei­jing em­broi­dery has fi­nally emerged. The stretched frame needs to be dis­as­sem­bled also. It needs to be done care­fully, slowly and gently, as Bei­jing em­broi­dery can be very del­i­cate and sur­faces of fin­ished works can be dam­aged eas­ily.

Things have changed as time con­tin­ues its re­lent­less march on­ward. Bei­jing em­broi­dery, which used to add glory to peo­ple's ap­pear­ances in the old days, is now mostly seen on TV dra­mas. Em­broi­dered works are now of­ten framed and hung on walls to be ap­pre­ci­ated. Yao stated emo­tion­ally: “Ev­ery piece of em­broi­dery is the crys­talli­sa­tion of the sweat and wis­dom of em­broi­der­ers and also re­flects the in­ge­nu­ity of the em­broi­der­ers. For var­i­ous prac­ti­cal rea­sons, it is a huge chal­lenge to in­herit this craft.”

Bei­jing em­broi­dery is an ex­quis­ite craft with hun­dreds of years of his­tory, ripe to be car­ried for­ward by those who ap­pre­ci­ate this art­form and have the pa­tience and skill to do so.

Draft­ing a pat­tern

Em­broi­der­ing with a fine nee­dle

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