During the APEC (Asia-pacific Economic Cooperation) meetings, held in Beijing in November 2014, a doublesided embroidered screen, which embodied traditional Chinese cultural elements, caught the attention of many participants from different parts of the world. The beautiful screen was placed in the passageway, which connected the meeting hall and the crush room. Gu Wenxia, a native of Dugu, a town in Wuxian, created the beautiful artwork.
For two millennia, the craft of embroidering has been handed down from generation to generation, especially among women. Gu began learning, from her mother, how to make embroideries when she was 14 years old. Within a short time, she made crafts to help her family meet its daily expenses.
In 1954, Gu received training, organized by Suzhou Embroidery Institute, for young embroiders. The institute invited painters and professors with academies of fine arts to provide lectures. The event marked a turning point in Gu's life, not only because she began working at the institute, but also because she realized embroidery was an art form, rather than a way to make a living. She also realized that creating artworks stressed creativity and originality, rather than merely the duplication of others' works. With that in mind, she went all out to practice her craft-making skills.
Gu in 1961 learned how to paint cats from Cao Kejia (1906-1979), a Chinese painter who was especially good at painting the animal. As she improved her painting skills, Gu could create embroideries that vividly depicted cats. She even kept felines, so she could observe them carefully. Eventually, Gu became an expert in embroidering cats.
In 1956, Gu participated in an international craft exhibition in London, during which she showed the artistic charm of Suzhou-style embroideries. Many visitors (to the exhibition) were impressed by Gu's superb skills, when she embroidered a cat. The viewers were amazed when they watched her split a colorful silk thread into a dozen of strands. A British woman told Gu, "How marvelous is your embroidery! If we hadn't seen you work, we wouldn't believe it's a handmade item. We might even think your hands are equipped with micro machines." Many viewers referred to the Chinese embroidery as "an oriental pearl." Then, Gu realized small silk embroidery needles could play big roles in promoting traditional Chinese culture.
Given the outstanding achievements in her work, Gu was promoted to vice-president of the institute in 1965. In 1978, when China implemented its policy of reform and opening to the world, Gu decided to create an embroidery, based on a painting by 14 well-known Chinese calligraphers and painters, to reflect the people's joy of living in the prosperous country. While she participated in a cultural activity in Beijing, Gu asked Zhao Puchu (1907-2000), a famous Chinese calligrapher, to write an inscription on the painting. Zhao wielded his brush and wrote the characters for "Spring Comes Round." After Gu returned home, she immediately organized 10-plus experienced craftswomen to create the embroidery. "It took us 10 months to finish the item. It turned out to be the best artwork of our institute," says Gu.
During the past several decades, Gu has strived to improve her skills and to innovate the technical skills used to create the crafts. In addition to summarizing the 40-plus traditional embroidering methods, she has developed new ways to create more exquisite embroideries. She has also led craftspeople in the institute in collecting embroidered works created by folk artists and in reproducing embroidered cultural relics, which were created during the past dynasties.
In 1986, Gu established the Museum of Suzhou Embroidery Art, to display the artistic charm of Suzhou-style embroideries. She was still concerned about the development of the craft, even after she retired from the museum in 1999. In 2001, she set up a studio to create embroideries.
In December 2015, Gu donated some of her embroideries to Suzhou Art & Design Technology Institute. "The works will be more useful at the school (than in my home)," Gu was quoted as saying. "I hope more youngsters will appreciate the beauty of the art form and promote the traditional craft throughout the world."
Gu Wenxia, who was born in Wuxian in 1931, is a State-level master of arts and crafts in China and a State-level inheritor of the craft of making Suzhoustyled embroideries. During the past six decades, she has created numerous exquisite embroideries with various patterns, including figures, animals, plants, flowers, scenes and/or buildings.